First Love by Erica Fuentes
(Pinnacle Encanto, $3.99, PG) ISBN 0-7860-1156-4
First Love let me with the uncomfortable feeling that the author made up the story as she went along. Parts of it make no sense, and the characters are ill-defined and stereotypical, as though they were based on characters seen in a television show. This, combined with a storytelling style that relies heavily on telling rather than showing, made for a flat read.

Gina Ramon is an English teacher in Guanajuato, Mexico. She has been selected to attend an international congress of teachers in Washington, D.C., a trip she anticipates because it means reuniting with a childhood playmate. The playmate, Mickey, is seven years older than Gina, which made me wonder how they’d be childhood friends, one of the many improbabilities in the story. Mickey’s cousin, Miguel, had been Gina’s sweetheart as a teenager. When Miguel’s parents were killed in an auto accident. Miguel had gone to live with relatives in North Carolina and had never contacted Gina again.

Gina’s fiancé, Alfredo, doesn’t want her to visit Mickey because Gina will be using money they are saving for their wedding and to finish their house. (The author describes this house in detail: domed ceiling, four bedrooms each with private bath, studio, servants’ quarters, etc.) Ignoring his protestations, Gina heads for Washington, where Mickey decides to hook her up with Miguel again.

Miguel is now a wealthy restaurateur in New Bern, North Carolina. He’s also six foot four, has blond hair and blue eyes, is lean and fit, owns a cabin cruiser, is a regional tennis champion, windsurfs, plays squash, spends a few weeks skiing each winter, yadda, yadda. The author again goes into detail in describing this specimen. He’s also “occupied” with Ana, Beatriz, Jennifer, and Julia, who thinks he’s the best lover she’s ever had. And unbelievably, his first thought on hearing that Gina is engaged is chagrin that she hadn’t waited for him all those years.

Okay, let’s cut through the rich lifestyle stuff and get to the point here. Miguel just came across as a rich jerk. And when he decides to court Gina again, it’s completely unconvincing. For years he’s been dallying with flashy women and hasn’t given Gina more than a passing thought. Now here she is, and gosh, he’d like to get her back. Why? To add her to the trophy case? Don’t try to convince this reader that it’s true love.

And when Gina is picked up by the INS, thanks to Miguel’s habit of hiring illegal immigrants as workers in his restaurant, she’s deported back to Mexico. It’s a month before Miguel decides to go see her. (Readers are treated to a description of how unfair the INS is to deported illegal immigrants, too, which was quite biased and had no place in this book as it did nothing for the story.) Miguel seems to escape this unscathed. It’s not a comfortable feeling when a reader decides the hero probably belongs in jail for his actions.

Writing a convincing romance is hard work, involving a great deal more than glossy descriptions of the Good Life and its inhabitants. It takes well-crafted, sympathetic characters who engage the readers’ emotions, and in this respect, First Love failed to satisfy. Miguel mainly elicited a feeling of distaste, and Gina is pretty much a doormat throughout the book. There is nothing new or even interesting about this story or its characters. If you’re looking to try an Encanto romance, this probably isn’t the one to choose.

--Cathy Sova

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