By Andreina Rodriguez
In the vibrant and close-knit world of the Vega family, love is never a simple affair.
Natalie Caña's A Dish Best Served Hot is a compelling sequel to A Proposal They Can't Refuse, takes us deeper into the heart of the Vega family. At its center is Santiago Vega — the older brother of the Vega family, who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders and possesses an unwavering desire to protect those he loves — and Lola Leon — a passionate social justice warrior, unyielding in her determination to save anyone in need.
Caña once again showcases her talent for weaving engaging romance and family dynamics, a combination that never fails to captivate me. While I knew going in that this book serves as a sequel to A Proposal They Can't Refuse, the delightful surprise of encountering familiar names only added to the pleasure of the read. Yet, what truly kept me glued to the story was the remarkable character development and the evolving connection between Lola and Santiago.
Out now by Mira Books, A Dish Best Served Hot begins with a telling prologue where we meet Santiago as he savors the solitude of his high school's empty hallways — an oasis of calm amidst the chaos of his bustling family life. The calm is shattered when he stumbles upon a heated confrontation between a fellow student, Jose Mendez and Lola León that quickly turns violent. In a brave and chivalrous act, Santiago steps in to protect Lola, which lays the foundation of a deep connection that earns him the nickname “Saint” from Lola.
Years later, after Saint returns from military service, he grapples with uniting his family, taking on added responsibilities at his uncle's construction firm, and dealing with the fact that his daughter has refused to speak at school. It's in this tumultuous period that Lola reenters his life.
Lola's return to Humboldt Park is driven by her devotion to her grandfather and the community center, especially the local shelter for LGBTQIA+ youth. When she discovers that Santiago’s family are jeopardizing both her grandfather and the shelter, she's determined to fight back, even if it means confronting the boy she never forgot.
As they join forces to save the shelter, aid Saint's daughter, and mend the longstanding feud between their grandfathers, dormant feelings resurface. While facing challenges, Lola and Saintbegin to question each other's loyalties, wondering whether their battles might ultimately cost them their newfound connection.
If you found A Proposal They Can't Refuse to your liking, you'll be delighted to witness the return of the mischievous Papo Vega — Santiago’s grandfather— in A Dish Best Served Hot. However, this time, his scheming is directed towards Lola's grandfather, Benny. Ironically, it's not Papo's intention to reunite Lola and Saint, but rather, it's the longstanding feud between their grandfathers that brings them together. Instead of orchestrating a fake engagement, as seen with Kamilah and Liam in the previous book, the grandfathers play a pivotal role in reigniting old flames.
I particularly appreciated this parallel between the two books, where family dynamics continue to play a central role in shaping the romance.
Caña writes, “From the moment she first heard it, it had done things to her. That voice saying her name had caused her to do things. Dumb things. Unfortunately for her that pattern seemed to continue, because before she could stop herself she blurted out, “There are approximately a hundred of you Vegas strutting around Humboldt Park. Why did it have to be you?”
Another theme that truly resonated with me throughout the book was the slow-burning connection between Lola and Saint. Despite their shared history, there was a palpable sense of anticipation to see them come together, adding a layer of richness to the reading experience. What I found particularly compelling was the way their individualities complemented each other seamlessly.
Lola's fiery social justice warrior persona and independent spirit perfectly complemented Saint's protective and nurturing nature, creating a harmonious and well-woven narrative.
“She loved when he called her cinnamon. He said it was because she was sweet and spicy, she knew it was because of her freckles, the author writes. “You know me better than anyone else in my life and you don’t judge me when I’m not perfect,” he told her while brushing his knuckles over her cheek. “You like me better when I’m not.”
Furthermore, the book fearlessly tackles a range of stark realities. Among these, mental health takes center stage as Saint grapples with occasional PTSD and anxiety stemming from his military service. Additionally, the story delves into Lola's personal journey, highlighting her body insecurities and familial complexities.
Beyond these personal struggles, the narrative also sheds light on the plight of LGBTQIA+ youths who are uprooted from their shelter due to the sale of the building, a consequence of ongoing gentrification in the neighborhood. Saint's family plays a role in this situation, further complicated by a broader financial challenge, as Saint's uncle wrestles with overwhelming medical bills.
These are just a few of the stark realities portrayed in the book, and I deeply appreciate how seamlessly Caña weaves these themes into the narrative. They mirror the complexities of the real world.
Importantly, these themes don't detract from the romance and enjoyable moments but coexist with them, much like life itself.
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About the Author:
Natalie Caña has been many things: a teacher of fun-sized to king-sized humans, a seriously unqualified softball coach, a scaredy-cat Halloween store manager, an Emmy award winning public television producer, and more. The one thing she’s ALWAYS been, since she first picked up a pencil, is a writer.
She loves to incorporate her you’ll-never-believe-what-just-happened-to-me personal experiences, enthusiasm for telenovela tomfoolery, and love for her Latinx culture into creating funny, heartfelt, and just a little bit over-the-top contemporary romances for characters who look and sound like her.
When she’s not writing in her peaceful, Hamilton-themed office, Natalie can most often be found engaging in shenanigans with most of her family (who almost all live within a ten block radius) or taking naps with her fur baby, Mr. Bruno Mars (Also known as, He Who Doesn’t Feel Like Doing Anything.)
Andreina Rodriguez is a journalist from Queens, New York. Her work appears on all 12 NBC local websites, Refinery29, CNBC, Latino Rebels, The Mujerista, #WeAllGrow Latina, and Modern Brown Girl.
You can follow her on Instagram @andreina_rod and follow her work through andreinarodriguez.com.