By Natasha Ford

In her second novel, Our Way Back to Always, Nina Moreno, known for her debut novel Don’t Date Rosa Santos and her short stories in the collections Game On and Reclaim the Stars, returns to the town of Port Coral, Florida with a new story to tell. Lou Patterson and Sam Alvarez used to be inseparable, but, following a rather embarrassing incident in eighth grade, the two have grown apart. In the weeks leading up to their senior year of high school, Lou finds an old list of goals the two made when they were younger, and is disappointed when she realizes she hasn’t crossed a single item off of the list. Lou, an introverted romantic who is feeling nothing but the pressing weight to be more than herself from her family, decides that she is going to achieve the goals set by her younger self before she goes to college. Through a series of unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on how you look at it) events, Sam, the golden boy drummer still mourning the passing of his father, becomes involved in crossing off items on their list. As the two grow closer, they realize there may be more than friendship simmering between them, and they need each other more than they know. With the list to guide them, Lou and Sam might find a way towards the future, and a way back to each other.

    Moreno has a unique ability to draw the reader into her world and create a level of comfort not seen in most writers. Port Coral feels like home. The neighborhoods and characters are believable and real. It feels like my childhood, my life in South Florida, is calling out to me. Port Coral is any small, coastal town in South Florida, and you can really feel the authenticity bleeding through the pages. The Port Coral town festival ( Lou helps design an app to help tourists navigate the town) and Halloween festival (with a costume contest that Lou and Sam compete in) gives off major small town vibes, and help bring Port Coral to life. The Beach Day party for the seniors of Port Coral  — the inciting incident that begins Sam and Lou’s journey — complete with Cuban sandwiches, dancing, and a local band, feels totally authentic and is the perfect way to introduce readers to Port Coral.

    The characters portrayed in Port Coral are just as authentic as the environment Moreno creates. Unlike in Don’t Date Rosa Santos, Moreno’s debut novel, the author chooses to bounce back and forth between Lou and Sam’s perspectives. Lou is adorably dorky and relatable. Her life is dictated by her desire to live up to the expectations set by her family. She was never the golden child, but, after her sister gets pregnant and decides to drop out of college, the weight of “success” falls onto Lou’s shoulders. Get into a good college, become a doctor or a lawyer. Make something of yourself.

    Through Sam, we see the weight of grief and expectations weighing on him as much as it is on Lou, though he carries it differently. After losing his father, Sam felt the weight of being the “man of the house.” The need to provide for his mother and sister as much as he can. College is not in his future. His path, now that his father is not around, is much different than it was two years ago. There was a particular moment from Sam that stands out in this novel: he’s performing at the halftime show in his marching band, and, just before he is set to perform, he has a panic attack. He finds himself in a closet, struggling to calm down. The moment was so raw and visceral. As a reader, you can feel the pain of loss Sam is experiencing. It was unexpected and beautiful. With Sam, Moreno really encapsulates the feelings of grief, showing that it never truly leaves and can show up at any moment.

    Our Way Back to Always is an incredible book. Moreno’s connections to her characters and her love of South Florida sing from the pages like a symphony. The story is heart-warming at times, serious at others, and you find yourself rooting for Sam and Lou. You want them to finish the list. You want them to be together. You want them to find their ways and their happy endings. The book has many twists and turns, but, in the end, you can only hope that Sam and Lou find their way back to always.

Featured image courtesy of Natasha Ford.

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