It is 1902 and Georgina Potter has followed her fiancé to the Philippines, the most remote outpost of America’s fledgling empire. But Georgina has a purpose in mind beyond marriage: her real mission is to find her brother Ben, who has disappeared into the abyss of the Philippine-American War.
To navigate the Islands’ troubled waters, Georgina enlists the aid of local sugar baron Javier Altarejos. But nothing is as it seems, and the price of Javier’s help may be more than Georgina can bear.
The Oriente is the finest hotel in Manila . . . but that’s not saying much.
Hotel manager Moss North already has his hands full trying to make the Oriente a respectable establishment amidst food shortages, plumbing disasters, and indiscreet guests. So when two VIPs arrive—an American congressman and his granddaughter Della—Moss knows that he needs to pull out all the stops to make their stay a success.
That won’t be easy: the Oriente is a meeting place for all manner of carpetbaggers hoping to profit off the fledgling American colony—and not all of these opportunists’ schemes are strictly on the up-and-up. Moss can manage the demanding congressman, but he will have to keep a close eye on Della—she is a little too nosy about the goings-on of the hotel and its guests. And there is also something very different about her . . .
Jonas Vanderburg volunteered his family for mission work in the Philippines, only to lose his wife and daughters in the 1902 cholera epidemic. He wishes his nurse would let him die, too.
Rosa Ramos wants nothing more to do with American men. Her previous Yankee lover left her with a ruined reputation and a child to raise alone. A talented nurse at a provincial hospital, she must now care for another American, this time a missionary whose friends believe her beyond redemption.
The papers back home call Ben Potter a hero of the Philippine-American War, but he knows the truth. When his estranged brother-in-law offers him work slashing sugarcane, Ben seizes the opportunity to atone—one acre at a time. At the hacienda Ben meets schoolteacher Allegra Alazas. While Allegra bristles at her family’s traditional expectations, the one man who appreciates her intelligence and independence seems to be the very worst marriage prospect on the island.
Neither Ben nor Allegra fit easily in their separate worlds, so together they must build one of their own. But when Ben’s wartime past crashes down upon them, it threatens to break their elusive peace.
This is Andres’s book (aka #UndressAndres) and you can read about my progress in researching his world here. There is a lot of medical history I have learned for the heroine, a doctor. That research has been partly through reading but primarily through podcasts.
Tempting Hymn is about two people of faith—different faiths, actually, which is one of many obstacles the characters must overcome. Jonas is an American Presbyterian missionary, and Rosa is a Filipino Catholic nurse. The book has spiritual elements, but it is not an inspirational romance. (In other words, there is explicit sex. For full content guidance, please go to this page.)
No matter if you are a religious person or not, good music is good music—and that includes hymns. At the school where I teach, we have all-school chapels four mornings a week. The prayers are interfaith and the talks largely secular, but we sing from the Episcopal Church’s 1982 Hymnal at the end of every service. After a while, a person gets to have favorites. She even recognizes hymns by number.
It was during Lessons & Carols that the idea for Jonas and Rosa’s story came to me. I still have the program I ruined with all my scribbles. When ideas come, you do not wait two hours to go home and write them down. No, you borrow a pen and write furiously throughout the entire concert. Was that a little rude? Yes. But, in my defense, I think the choir would have really appreciated how much their singing moved me. When I finished the book, I knew what the epilogue scene had to be.
I chose the other hymns in the book based upon their beauty and meaning. I had to be historically accurate, of course, so I worked from the 1895 revision of The Hymnal, approved by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Most of the hymns below, and all the ones that became the chapter titles, can be identified by number.
Prologue: “Amazing Grace.” This is one of the few not included in the hymnal mentioned above. Though this early 19th century song was included in earlier Presbyterian versions—for example, it was hymn number 519 in the 1874 Hymnal—they omitted it in 1895 for reasons I cannot fathom. I still used the song. Jonas would have certainly learned it from older versions, and he would have sung it often for his daughter, Grace. Now this song is the single most frequently sung hymn in the Presbyterian Church USA, with more than sixty-six percent of their congregations singing it twice or more per year. For your listening pleasure, I chose Elvis Presley’s version (below) so that I could showcase a male voice. (And, if youwant to hear the bass of the tune as a solo, listen to this version by Acappella with Tim Faust. This is how Jonas would have sounded.)
Chapter Two: Number 589, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The reader may not recognize the middle verses I used in the book scene, but they will likely recognize the title of the song. Everyone from Mumford & Sons to the Christian punk band Eleventyseven has covered it. Sufjan Stevens has a wonderful version in his Complete Christmas Collection, but that video was removed from YouTube. Instead, I found this version by Sarah Noëlle, which is lovely:
Chapter Three: Number 524, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” I fudged the history here just a bit. The 18th century words for this song are correct, but do not try to sing the original music. This hymn did not catch on until the tune Cwm Rhondda was written, a year after my character Jonas sings it in the book. I hope you will forgive the anachronism. As befits a Welsh tune by a Welsh composer, the version I have chosen to post here is sung by the Tabernacle Welsh Baptist Church, Cardiff:
Chapter Five: Number 98, “The Spacious Firmament on High.” This is, without doubt, my favorite hymn—and yet it seems to be the least popular to cover. The reason I love it may be the same reason most choirs do not: it is very deist in theology, with a vague “supreme architect” Creator fashioning the universe of planets, stars, and orbs. The hymn is by Hadyn, though, and it’s gorgeous! I chose an a cappella version (by a group named Acappella) because it allows you to hear the bass clearly, though the beat is a little fast:
Chapter Seven: “Adoro Te Devote.” Since this is a Catholic hymn, you will not find it in the Presbyterian hymnal. The mass described in this chapter was a Tridentine Mass (pre-1962 Second Vatican Council), which means it would have been all in Latin, and the hymns would have been Gregorian. Have you listened to Gregorian music? Beautiful, but not catchy. And Latin. Did I mention the Latin? Of the various hymns I listened to, this one has the most identifiable melody, probably because the music was not written until after the seventeenth century. Therefore, it was the best choice for Jonas to sing on the fly:
Chapter Eight: Number 24, “Abide with Me.” I used this song as both a hymn to be sung by Jonas while he fixes the mill, and also, later, as a chapter title. It is the kind of hymn that I think a man with a natural bass would enjoy singing because it stays within his range. The lyrics also tell the story of the big decision he is about to make. The version below is sung by George Beverly Shea:
Chapter Twelve: Number 304, “The Church’s One Foundation.” In the story, I make a point of the different directions the bass and sopranos go in this song—opposite, but complimentary. To hear the bass part only, listen to this great tutorial by BassHymn:
To hear all the parts together, here is a video by King’s College Cambridge:
Chapter Twelve (again): Number 692, “Now the Day is Over.” I found this hymn in the Children’s Services section of the hymnal, and it fits perfectly as a lullaby. This version is by Pat Boone:
Chapter Nineteen: Number 276, “Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost.” I chose this hymn because of its paraphrasing of the Apostle Paul’s I Corinthians 13. You know the passage I’m talking about:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things….And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I wanted this sentiment in hymn form, which is surprisingly hard to find. Here, at least, is the common tune used for the hymn:
Epilogue: Number 696, “Once in Royal David’s City.” Sitting through this service in December 2013 gave me the seeds of Rosa and Jonas’s story, so I end the book (and this post) with the real deal. No substitutions. In this, the 2015 Groton School Lessons & Carols service, the soprano solo is sung by Phoebe Fry, Form of 2017 (and Barnard College class of 2021). She is a talented singer-songwriter in the folk-pop tradition, so please check out her amazing songs. (The orchestra prelude is wonderful, but you can skip right to the hymn at minute 12:15.) Enjoy!
Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy Rosa and Jonas’s story. It is about finding a home for love.
My novella Tempting Hymn is the second in my series to mention the 1902 cholera epidemic in the Philippines. The book’s hero, Jonas Vanderburg, volunteered his family for mission work in the Philippines, only to lose his wife and daughters in the same outbreak that Georgina Potter dodged when she arrived in Manila in Under the Sugar Sun. Both books give a glimpse into what people feared most in the Edwardian era. Before the mechanical death of the Great War, disease was the worst of the bogeymen. [Edited to add in March 2020: It still is a bogeyman, obviously, even though cholera is a very different type of disease than #COVID19. For starters, cholera is caused by a bacterium not a virus. Nevertheless, it matters how society approaches containment and treatment of both diseases.]
My books may be historical romance, but this post will not romanticize the history. Census figures put the total death toll from Asiatic cholera in the Philippines (1902-1904) between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Even that number might be low. This strain of the disease was particularly virulent, killing 80 to 90 percent in the hospitals. The disease progressed rapidly and painfully:
Often the disease appears to start suddenly in the night with a violent diarrhea, the matter discharged being whey-like, ‘rice-water’ stools…Copious vomiting follows, accompanied by severe pain in the pit of the stomach, and agonizing cramps of the feet, legs, and abdominal muscles. The loss of liquid is so great that the blood thickens, the body becomes cold and blue or purple in color…Death often occurs in less than a day, and the disease may prove fatal in less than two hours. (A.V.H. Hartendorp, editor of Philippine Magazine)
The Yanks saw cholera as a personal challenge to their colonial ideology. They had come to the Philippines to “Fill full the mouth of famine and bid the sickness cease,” in the words of Rudyard Kipling. What was the point of bringing the “blessings of good and stable government upon the people of the Philippine Islands” if they could not prove the value of their civilization with some modern medicine?
Cholera was not a new killer in the islands, nor did the Americans bring the disease with them. Though the Eighth and Ninth Infantries were initially blamed, the epidemic probably had its roots in China in this case. As Ken de Bevoise said in his outstanding work, Agents of Apocalypse: “The volume of traffic…between Hong Kong and Manila in 1902 was so high that it is pointless to try to pinpoint the exact source.” However, just because Americans did not bring cholera does not mean that we will let them off the hook. American policies, both military and civil, may have made the course of the disease worse.
War weakens and disperses a population, leaving it more vulnerable to disease. In 1901-1902 General J. Frederick Bell set up “protection zones” in Batangas, south of Manila, where all civilians were forced to live in close quarters without access to their homes, farms, and wells. Once cholera hit these zones, there was no escape: 11,000 people died. Even worse, mass starvation forced the general public to ignore the food quarantine, meant to keep tainted vegetables from being sold on the market. The Americans blamed Chinese cabbages for bringing cholera spirilla to the Philippines, but the war gave the people no other choice but to eat (possibly contaminated) contraband to survive.
Inside Manila people were also quarantined—a good idea, actually. The traditional Filipino home quarantine had worked well in the past: infected homes were marked with a red flag to signal people to stay away while loved ones were cared for. [Edited to add in March 2020: This may be the equivalent of social distancing and self-isolation of those sick. In the current #coronavirus crisis, health professionals like the CDC and WHO ask that only those who need advanced care—those with a fever or difficulty breathing—go to a hospital.]
But the Americans thought bigger. They collected the infected and brought them all to centralized hospitals outside of the city—buildings that also housed a morgue and crematorium, the public noticed. According to De Bevoise, eighty percent of the time, this was the last time the family saw the patient. Despite the Manila Times portraying the Santiago Cholera Hospital as a “little haven of rest, rather than a place to be shunned,” and bragging that it was staffed by the “gentle…indefatigable, ever cheerful” Sisters of Mercy, readers were not convinced. They would do anything to keep their family members from being taken there. They fled. They hid their sick. Because cremation was forbidden for Catholics at this time, the Filipinos hid their dead.
And the disease spread.
My book Under the Sugar Sun began with a dramatic house burning scene, where public health officials destroyed an entire neighborhood in the name of sanitation. The road to hell was not just paved with good intentions. It was also littered with the corpses of industrious, exuberant, and dogmatic government officials. Any houses found to be infected were burned, “because the nipa hut cannot be properly disinfected,” in the words of one American commissioner’s wife. People were forced to find refuge elsewhere in the city, carrying the disease with them. Because it was such a counterproductive policy, Filipinos thought the American officials must have an ulterior motive in the burnings: to drive the poor out of their homes, clear the land, and build their own palaces. The commissioner’s wife, Edith Moses, herself said: “Sometimes, when I think of our rough ways of doing things, I feel an intense pity for these poor people, who are being what we call ‘civilized’ by main force….it seems an act of tyranny worse than that of the Spaniards.”
American instructions to the sick were also confusing—and sometimes bizarre. Clean water was a necessity, but this was not something the poor had access to. Commissioner Dean C. Worcester claimed: “Distilled water was furnished gratis to all who would drink it, stations for its distribution being established through the city, supplemented by large water wagons driven through the streets.” But no other source mentions such bounty. In fact, as author Gilda Cordero-Fernando pointed out in her article, “The War on Germs,” in Filipino Heritage, most people treated distilled water like a magic tonic, it was so rare: “Asked whether a certain family was drinking boiled water, as prescribed, one’s reply was ‘Yes, regularly—one teaspoon, three times a day.’” Even worse, though, was this advice by Major Charles Lynch, Surgeon, U.S. Volunteers, which was reprinted in the Manila Times:
Chlorodyne, or chlorodyne and brandy, have been found especially useful; lead and opium pills, chalk, catechu, dilute sulphuric acid, etc., have all been used. With marked abdominal pain and little diarrhea, morphine should be given…Ice and brandy, or hot coffee, may be given in small quantities, and water, in small sips, may be drunk when they do not appear to increase the vomiting…cocaine and calomel in minute doses—one-third grains—every two hours, having been used with benefit in some cases.
Lead pills. Opium. Chalk. Cocaine. And “calomel”? Mercurous chloride. If the cholera doesn’t kill you, Dr. Lynch’s treatment will! Though the coffee and brandy sounds nice…
When the Americans could not control the spread of the disease, they reverted to racism and blamed the epidemic on the victims. As public health historians Roy M. MacLeod and Milton James Lewis wrote:
American cleanliness was being undermined by Philippine filth.The Manila Times lamented the cholera deaths of “clean-lived Americans.”It identified the “native boy” as “the probable means of infection” since in hotels and houses he prepared and served food and drinks to unwitting Americans.The newspaper reminded its American readers that “cholera germs exude with the sweat through the pores of the [Filipino servant’s] skin”and that “his hands may be teeming with the germs.”
According to the Manila Times, the Americans organized their cholera hospitals by race: the tent line marked street A was “Chinatown,” street B was for the Spanish, street C for white Americans, street D for African Americans, and E through G for Filipinos. Though trade with China had been the cholera vector, Chinese-Filipinos actually had the lowest death rate of any group, including Americans. A Yankee health official ascribed this to the fact that they “eat only long-cooked and very hot food, in individual bowls and with individual chopsticks, and that they drink only hot tea.”
The epidemic reached its peak in Manila in July 1902, and in the provinces in September 1902, before running its course. Its decline was probably due to the heavy rains cleansing the city, increased immunity among the remaining population, and a strategic call by the Archbishop of Manila to encourage Filipinos to bury their dead quickly—but Americans still congratulated themselves on their efforts. And they had worked hard, it is true: Dr. Franklin A. Meacham, the chief health inspector, and J. L. Judge, superintendent of sanitation in Manila, died from exhaustion. The Commissioner of Public Health, Lt. Col. L. M. Maus, suffered a nervous breakdown. Even the American teachers on summer vacation were encouraged to moonlight as health inspectors—for free, in the end. The wages paid to them by the Police Department were deducted from their vacation salaries because no civil employee was allowed to receive two salaries at once. (The relevant Manila Times article explaining this policy is not online, but its title, “Teachers are Losers” is worth mentioning.)
All their hard work might have been for nought, though. Filipino policies of individual house-by-house quarantine would have probably been more effective, had they been given the chance to work. Whipping up the population into a panic was exactly what the Americans should not have done. In the name of containing the disease, they caused the real carriers—people—to disperse wider and faster throughout the country. We all need to be on guard against such hubris. [Edited to add in March 2020: Please practice social distancing and self-isolation to #flattenthecurve. If you are not in a high-risk group by age or pre-existing conditions, please take these precautionary measures in order to protect those in your family or community who are most at risk. And stop hoarding the toilet paper. What are you going to do, eat it? Also, check out my full history of Gilded Age medicine and my favorite medical history podcasts for more information.]
I write my love stories in the middle of challenging settings like cholera fires and wars because I believe that love will find a way to grow even during the darkest of times. In the Sugar Sun series, American and Filipino characters untangle international and interpersonal conflicts to create their happily-ever-afters, even if they cannot change the larger course of history that envelops them. Along the way, they show that today’s debates over global economic integration, nation-building, military force, religious extremism—and epidemic disease—echo the scrutiny over American policy that started in the Philippines.
Featured image is of the cholera squad hired by the Americans in the Philippine outbreak of 1902. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Taking their name from the Visayan words for “woman” and “spirit,” the babaylans were “mystical women who wielded social and spiritual power in pre-colonial Philippine society,” according to Marianita “Girlie” Villariba. I recently wrote a priestess like this named Valentina:
“We are people,” Valentina said. “Farmers, sisters, mothers. We are the faithful.”
“Fanatics,” Allegra muttered.
“Why, because we defend ourselves? You compadres are like capiz oysters, burrowing down into the sludge of occupation—first Spanish, now American. You think you will come up as shiny as a pearl. I am a healer, a shepherd. I created a sanctuary where women can be free.”
Valentina is not the heroine of the book, but she is not the villain either—no matter what the Spanish or Americans believed. Because the Spanish especially viewed these women as a threat to the spread of Catholicism and patriarchy, the friars discredited the babaylans by spreading rumors that they were really vampire-like mythical creatures, or aswangs.
But babaylans did not have to be women. You could be a man—or you could be a man living under an adopted female identity, part of the long proto-transgender tradition in Southeast Asia. (By the way, the Philippines just elected their first transgender congresswoman.) Anyone who had a lifetime’s track record of helping the community—through both bandages (healers) or swords (warriors)—could be selected. This range of duties will be important to the way the identity of babaylans will evolve, especially at the turn of the twentieth century.
The babaylan’s unique blend of nationalism and traditionalism pushed them to challenge both Americans and hacenderos at the same time. Babaylans spoke to God in their native language, and God told them to oppose the changes hitting their island. They believed that God inhabited all of nature, so the destruction of nature—particularly by industrial machines—was against the will of the universe. Men joined the movement in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly “discontented marginalized peasants,” according to Violeta Lopez-Gonzaga. This made the babaylans “a peasant protest movement with messianic, revivalistic, and nativistic overtones.”
The largest of these revolts was led by Dionisio Sigobela, also known as Papa (Pope) Isio. As historian Renato Constantino wrote, the situation in the early 1900s was particularly tenuous. War and revolution had closed ports and destroyed farmland. Natural disasters like drought, locusts, and rinderpest made the situation worse.Laborers were rapidly being replaced by machines, though both were in short supply. According to Constantino, only one-fifth of 1898’s arable land was planted four years later, in 1902.
Times were tough, as Javier Altarejos will tell you in Tempting Hymn. In this scene, Javier reveals the babaylan ties of one of his former employees, Peping Ramos, whom you may remember as the disgruntled cane slasher who shot a young boy in Under the Sugar Sun. Javier is speaking to the hero of Tempting Hymn, Jonas Vanderburg. The American is curious about the babaylans because he is falling in love with Peping’s daughter, Rosa Ramos.
“When I took over the hacienda, Peping was sure he could manage me.” Javier took a sip of his drink. “He was wrong.”
“So he ran off to join the madmen in the mountains?”
“They’re not all madmen—though they do attract every troublemaker on the island. The babaylan are more like the trade unionists you have in America.”
“But their popes and special charms—”
“Give them credibility.”
That credibility came from the traditional role of babaylans as priest(ess), sage, and seer. People admired the babaylans, and they would not stop admiring them just because the Americans said so. In fact, the Yanks were not able to put down Papa Isio’s insurrection until 1907—a tough reality for Americans to stomach since they had made such a big deal of declaring peace in 1902.
The declaration fooled no one because Samar was rising up again, too. In fact, Samar had a very similar movement to the babaylans, complete with its own popes and sacred amulets: the pulahans (or “red pants”). Both the pulahans and the babaylans believed that:
an apocalyptic clash was coming;
they alone would survive; and
a new independent world order would be built upon the ashes of imperialism and industrialism.
If this sounds familiar, take a look at the Boxer Rebellion in China—same time, same motives, and the same ideology. It’s not a coincidence. As a teacher of world history, imperialism, and comparative religions, movements like the babaylans and the pulahans represent the intersection of everything that interests me, which is why they turned out to be such an important part of Sugar Moon‘s plot. I hope you find the politics as interesting as I do.
Featured image includes three babaylan mandalas, created by artist Perla Daly.
In the last twenty years or so, “Cringe humor,” with its “painful laughs,” has become a popular genre of television. Think The Office, especially the British version. We watch our favorite and least favorite characters embarrass themselves for our amusement. Wait—“amusement”? Some of these shows used real people and their real names. Time Magazine said of the Da Ali G Show: “The way Baron Cohen incorporated real people into his cringe-comedy was mean and unfair, but if it hadn’t been, it wouldn’t have been so revealing—or so funny.” I imagine for those people captured on camera, though, it was not just social awkwardness they felt afterwards. It was humiliation.
Where’s the line? We all have our little embarrassing moments we would like to forget. Many of us were socially awkward at one time or another. Maybe even outcasts. Growing up is hard. But what happens when our greatest humiliation comes in young adulthood, the time of life when we are supposed to be getting our act together? How do we go on? How do we find love? This is the reason why I was originally hesitant to read what you might call “cringe romance”: romance where one or both main characters must overcome a very public shame. But these stories need to be told. I am going to review one. And I ended up writing one, too.
Writing about humiliation and redemption is hard. It is a rare subject in romance because even if readers want their heroines to be “identifiable,” who wants to feel the humiliation of the main character so acutely? (Unless it is “humiliation kink,” which, yes, is a thing, and no one writes it better than Tamsen Parker in True North.)
I finally picked up the latest in the Chic Manila series after listening to Mina V. Esguerra talk about it on the Book Thingo’s podcast. Esguerra is the leader and pioneer of the #romanceclass group of Filipino writers who innovate and entertain at the same time. I have read others in her Chic Manila series and have loved them. Because kilig (feels). I love that Esguerra is not afraid to make heroines out of her previous antagonists—like Kimmy Domingo, the anti-heroine of Love Your Frenemies. And, yay, Kimmy is in this book, too!
But Iris is not just rough around the edges, like Kimmy. She is not a difficult person. She is quite nice, actually. She has a good job helping young women get scholarships for math and science degrees. She works hard and seeks little credit for it.
But she is broken all the same. She has been utterly humiliated on a worldwide scale. Worst of all, the family who shuns her for shaming them were complicit in making her shame public. It is a real Charlie Foxtrot, as the book blurb says:
Whether she likes it or not, Iris’s life has been divided into two: Before the Incident, and After the Incident. Something very private was made very public, and since then life has been about recovering from being shamed, discovering her true friends, and struggling to find a new normal.
The “something very private” is revealed less than ten percent into the story, but if you do not want to know what it is, stop reading here.
No, really. If you don’t want to know, you need to stop reading now.
Okay. You want to know. Yes, it’s a sex tape. But that sounds more sordid than it really was. Let Iris tell it:
I had sex with my boyfriend.
And we took a video.
And it accidentally got out on the internet.
People saw it.
When Iris says “accidentally,” she really does mean it. It should not have happened. But it did.
And in the beginning, it was still an anonymous sex tape. Life could go on—until a certain member of Iris’s family tried to “clear the air” and blew the lid right off the scandal. Iris’s humiliation is especially acute in the context of Philippine society. To be “walang hiya”—shameless or unconscionable— is one of the worst insults in the Tagalog language. Because Iris’s scandal becomes the whole family’s scandal, the family blames Iris for their collective misfortune.
The full scope of Iris’s mortification may be hard for non-Filipino readers to understand. In the New Zealand television show Outrageous Fortune, a young woman named Pascalle sets up and leaks her own sex tape in order to encourage notoriety. In the United States of Real Life, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and Rob Lowe made (or remade) careers out of this kind of “fame.” But for Iris Len-Larioca, the heroine of Esguerra’s novel, her sex tape is The End of Days. And she does what you might expect: she hides.
No, she really hides. She moves out of her family home into a small one-bedroom apartment, works a graveyard shift to avoid people in the office, and takes a demotion so she can cower behind a computer instead of wooing clients in person. For a while, she makes her own baking soda toothpaste to avoid the local convenience store.
Surprisingly, though, this broken woman still has a great sense of humor. She retells her own story as if she is writing a grant application—because her job is evaluating grant applications. Bitter sarcasm, self deprecation, and witty rejoinders abound. Iris’s voice is very Bridget-Jones-meets-Jessica-Jones. For example, in a particularly embarrassing scene on a cable car in Tagaytay, she shocks everyone with her honesty: “I’d opened the can of worms, anyway,” Iris thinks to herself. “Worms all over the place.”
Esguerra has made Iris real. And unique. While her voice can be funny, it is also determined, level, and self-aware:
Sometimes I wished that I could be that person that no one singled out, that no one used as an example or a cautionary tale.
We could only move forward.
And Iris tries to move forward. The real story is, in fact, a romance. She tries to move forward with a man just as broken as she is—and for similar reasons. Gio Mella’s sexual skeletons were plastered all over the internet, too. He is also hiding, but in a different way. While Iris wants to know everything said on the internet about her—she has even set up email alerts—Gio has no internet and no phone. The Philippines is the twelfth largest cell phone market in the world, so that essentially makes Gio a unicorn. The lack of phone provides both conflict and wonderful feels in the resolution of the book.
You should know, though, that this book is not plot heavy. No one is kidnapped. No commandos storm the compound. A little bit of scholarship and cosmetic business is conducted—great alternatives to the typical billionaire romance trope—but all of these minor adventures merely serve to put two recluses into closer and closer contact with the world. And we get to see how they fare.
And there is sex. Wonderful, hot sex.
As Sue of Hollywood News Source wrote on Goodreads: “Iris After the Incident is the most feminist & empowering romance book I’ve ever read.” This book is sex-positive. Because the sex on Iris’s tape was consensual, sex itself is not ruined for Iris—just trust. Iris will have to learn to trust Gio, but she knows that she wants to have sex with him—and how. She and Gio have chemistry. Literally:
What I liked about him being on top was I got to watch him. Watched the tension in his arms, his shoulders, the way his hips, his torso, his entire body worked for his pleasure and mine. It was hot, and one of the best ways to cap an hour-long discussion on chemistry, in my humble opinion.
Obviously, there is a future for this couple. If I called it “happy for now,” that would be accurate, but it would minimize the strength of the relationship. “Happy for now” is “happily ever after” for people like Iris and Gio. “Ever after” is too much to think about. Now is the victory. They have now, and I know they will keep having now for many, many nows in the future.
My only quibble with the ending was that Tita Ara did not get vanquished in some spectacularly vivid fashion. I am not usually a mean-spirited person, but there it is.
Iris After the Incident takes on a devastating challenge, but it wins our hearts. It is both a cautionary tale—for my students who put private information on the internet all the time—and an encouragement to persevere.
The heroine in my upcoming book, Rosa Ramos, goes through struggles similar to Iris, but in a very Edwardian era sort of way. Her mistakes were not broadcast on the internet, of course, because it is 1904. But that also means Rosa cannot hide away in the anonymity of modern society. Everyone in Bais knows her story—and if you’ve read Under the Sugar Sun, then you do, too. Rosa was left not only with a soiled reputation, but also a child to support. Adding to her problems—and everyone’s problems, really—are the issues of class and race in the American colonial period.
My hero, Jonas Vanderburg, is broken, too—but in a very different way than Gio, Iris, or Rosa. This Midwestern missionary’s entire family died in Manila during the cholera epidemic of 1902—an unexpected sacrifice that Jonas has no intention of surviving alone. But Rosa, his nurse, needs to heal him so that she can support her son and redeem her professional reputation. Neither of them want a marriage of convenience, but you can’t always get what you want.
I look forward to sharing this story with you next month. Stay tuned for news. And, until then, read Iris After the Incident, the whole Chic Manila series, and the rest of the #romanceclass collection. I will leave you with a poem:
Featured image is a trilogy of sorts: Iris After the Incident builds upon characters introduced in Love Your Frenemies, which in turn redeems a character you love to hate in My Imaginary Ex (pictured here in a three-book set).