Ramón and Julieta is a romance novel about Ramón, a billionaire, and Julieta, a chef. It’s also a novel about identity, culture, ethics, gentrification, music, family (toxic and healthy), and food. I wasn’t sure how this couple could possibly find a happy ending, but I sure wanted them to. However, given the weight and nuance of the topics addressed, especially gentrification, I wasn’t completely satisfied with how the story resolved.

Ramón is the son of a man who built a business empire starting with a chain of Americanized Mexican fast-food restaurants. Ramón works for his father, who wants Ramón to buy one block of a historically Mexican-American neighborhood and replace a small family-owned restaurant with one from his own franchise. Ramón’s father also intends to raise rents and replace other mom-and-pop businesses with franchises.

Julieta is the chef at the restaurant that would be replaced (her mother owns it). When Ramón and Julieta meet by chance at a Dia de los Muertos festival, they have no idea that the sparks between them are surely doomed to be extinguished by the rivalry between Ramón’s father and Julieta’s mother, and between Ramón’s desire to please his father and Julieta’s loyalty to her neighborhood. Her character arc is much less complicated and dramatic than Ramón’s, but it is satisfying in its own way.

I had serious doubts about a book in which the hero is a billionaire who is attempting to gentrify a historically Mexican-American neighborhood, and for the first few chapters I felt strongly that the success of this book would rest entirely on whether or not Ramón’s actions would make up for his initial intentions sufficiently to appease me. However, his character arc mostly won me over. Ramón’s desire for connection with his roots and with his family, and his frustrations about his role in his father’s business were relatable even when his wealth and lifestyle were not.

Julieta is awesome, but her story is mostly reactive. Since she reacts assertively and intelligently and skillfully to all manner of obstacles, I didn’t notice how much Ramón drives the plot instead of her until I started writing this review. I admired her commitment to her community, her culture, her family, and her art (she is a gifted and inventive chef) and I wanted good things for her, but she’s not a very complicated character.

When it comes to conveying a sense of place and appealing to all senses, the book does a fantastic job. I loved seeing different parts of San Diego through the eyes of the characters and I added to my list of places to explore on my next trip. I usually visit family there about twice a year, so I recognized a lot of the places that Ramón and Julieta spent time at, which was very fun. And the food, oh my goodness, it sounded incredible! By incorporating not just the sights of the area but also art, food, music, clothing, and nature, the book felt beautifully immersive.

I appreciated that this book depicted therapy as a positive thing for men as well as women. I also appreciated the communication between Ramón and Julieta. There’s a point at which a Big Misunderstanding seems inevitable but it is immediately diffused because Ramón and Julieta are honest and transparent with one another. There’s still a huge conflict between them, but it isn’t based on a secret or a misunderstanding or some sort of “I was going to tell you later” kind of bullshit. They fight fair, which I found to be very satisfying.

I also liked how the couple value each other and themselves as individuals but also make each other stronger and better, something Julieta points out to her mother:

“Aren’t the best relationships when you learn from each other? When you grow together?”

“It is better to be with someone who is like you.”

Julieta wasn’t so sure. So what that Ramón had been raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. He had already taught her so much. How to enjoy her days off. How to have more of a work-life balance…

And she had taught him stuff, too – it wasn’t one-sided.

One thing this book did well was make me simultaneously believe that Julieta and Ramón would be a good long-term couple while also keeping me in suspense about how this story could end up having a happy ending for the couple as well as the community. As far as the actual romance goes, Ramón and Julieta came across as a solid couple who balance each other well, have great communication, and a lot of chemistry.

However, the ‘gentrifying billionaire as hero’ thing only kinda sorta worked. Billionaire romances are tough for me to start with, because as the cranky socialist that I am, I’m usually opposed to how the rich guy makes and manages his money even as I recognize the appeal of the lifestyle perks (I, too, would like to buy a house in Coronado, thank you very much). I’m particularly edgy about a hero who is actively involved in gentrification although the book’s resolution took care of many of my concerns on that account. I know a lot of people love billionaire heroes and those people I say rock on, you will love Ramón and his sexy self!

In terms of what happens to the neighborhood, the book has an ending that is symbolically satisfying in many ways, and is certainly deeply satisfying for the characters (both main and supporting) but fails to engage with the big picture. The story involves gentrification of one block in a larger (real-life) historically Chicano neighborhood. I was left feeling happy for the block, and optimistic for Ramón and Julieta as a couple and as individuals, but I wanted more commitment from this couple to fight gentrification on a systemic level.

Just because they have addressed their immediate problems doesn’t mean that these issues don’t exist for, say, the community a few blocks away. What will happen to them, or to the rest of the neighborhood? I would have loved just one sentence at the end mentioning that Ramón and Julieta were, among their other projects, aware of the larger context and interested in practicing some broader-scale advocacy.

Those who enjoy billionaire tropes will enjoy this book, and as I mentioned the food is amazing. I liked the romance and the characters, and I was mostly satisfied by the resolution of the story. I also appreciated the context about the history of the area. However, given the importance of that history and the urgency of protecting the rest of the neighborhood, I would have liked to have seen Ramón and Julieta take on some wider-scale efforts to fight gentrification in general. That was the missing ingredient for me in what was generally an entertaining, uplifting, sexy, and thoughtful book.

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