I wish I had liked this book more. This could have been a favorite, if it hadn’t been for the romance.
Like Water is a contemporary coming-of-age story set in a small town in New Mexico, during the summer after Vanni’s graduation. Vanni feels stuck, because she doesn’t feel like she can leave the small town – her dad has Huntington’s disease, and she might have it too.
Like Water is a slow, atmospheric contemporary story, and not your average summer novel – it has a romance, but it’s so much more; it’s about self-discovery and difficult decisions and family, all of it beautifully written. It’s a story that feels real, almost painfully so at times, and Vanni’s mixed feelings about her hometown, her family and her future are not something I often see in books. Also, this is a really sex-positive book with great bisexual representation, in which the main character likes casual sex but still isn’t portrayed as a cheater. I love it.
I did not love the romance.
Vanni and Leigh’s relationship reminded me of Elena and Freddie from The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, which features one of my least favorite relationship dynamics ever, with one character being both constantly rude and manipulative towards the other. Like Water wasn’t as bad, but that element was definitely there. Leigh is constantly passive-aggressive, acts out and ends up in risky situations because of that, and it’s clear (and even acknowledged in the ending, but that was too late) that she has unresolved emotional issues, maybe depression and hates herself. I never understood why Vanni even liked her, and at one point I didn’t just not understand this romance, I wanted them not to end up together, because Leigh went too far. I can’t explain without spoilers, but that was not depression, that was Leigh being manipulative and the book blaming it on her issues.
Sometimes I hate how mental illness is represented in YA. It goes from “not showing any unappealing symptoms, ever” (many anxiety portrayals) to “character is constantly rude, aggressive and manipulative because they have a mental illness and You Should Forgive Them” (most portrayals of depression I’ve found so far) and… no. Why.
The thing is, I really wish I had liked Leigh more. She’s Italian-American (I think?), she likes girls, she is questioning her gender (at the end of the book, she settles on “genderqueer” as a description) and dealing with mental illness. But I just couldn’t, after what she did. There was also this undertone of “I discovered I was queer before you did and because of that I’m allowed to be condescending to you” which is something that happens in real life too and that I hate.
Both Vanni and Leigh are objectively well-rounded, developed characters, but Vanni deserved better.
I loved the atmosphere – I felt like I was there in New Mexico with Vanni, and I’ve never been there – and the water park scenes and Vanni’s love for swimming were also elements I really liked. Another thing I really appreciated was how the characters spoke Spanish sometimes and the book didn’t give you a translation, but you could understand what they were saying from the context; I like bilingualism done well.
If you like atmospheric, character-driven contemporary which is also really diverse and don’t mind what I said about the romance, I really do recommend this book.
My rating: ★★★★