OMG what an emotional roller coaster of feels this book is! A sweet, young adult romance with a very Filipino vibe, lots of Pampanga love, and lots and lots of yummy food, Feels Like Home very much does feel like returning home. The romance between Mickey and Clara is really sweet; they support each other’s dreams and help each other grow as people, and as cheesy as this may sound, I truly felt like they found a sense of home and family with each other.
Clara is a super serious and driven journalism student from a large and close-knit family; Mickey is a free-spirited basketball star who doesn’t feel he belongs to either of his parent’s families. Their vibe as a couple is super Filipino: Mickey shows his interest in Clara by teasing her like a little sister; Clara insists “annoying” and says “eww, gross” any time someone jokes about a burgeoning romance. It’s a dynamic I don’t often see in college-age Western romances, but is very much a trope in Filipino rom-coms and Chinese, Japanese, and Korean shows.
I’ll admit that Mickey’s immature style of flirting annoyed me at times (he does a prank on social media that just super turned me off), but I also appreciated how quick he always was to apologize whenever he saw Clara genuinely bothered by something he did. Their open communication, about the teasing and other topics, was one of my personal highlights in their relationship, and went a long way in showing how much their friendship deepened over time.
Beyond that, I also love how supportive they were of each other’s dreams and needs. I love that Mickey went so far as to do a full-on study session with Clara to help her prepare for her audition to be a social media reporter at a local sports station. Clara is a bit less demonstrative with her affections and support, but she does come through for Mickey in a big way near the end, and it almost made me tear up with how happy I was for Mickey at that moment.
The Heroine: Clara
Ahh, Clara… There were times I wanted to yell at her to just chill, already, and there were other times I wanted to hug her and assure her things really aren’t as dire as she seems to believe. I don’t think I was ever as single-mindedly driven as Clara is, but I do remember how everything I did seemed super magnified at 18. Every single action could determine my entire future, and every single mistake could spell my doom.
Aquino also does a great job in setting up Clara’s discomfort, having lived all her life in a quiet rural area in Pampanga, and now living on her own for the first time in mega city Manila. The Plan that’s causing her so much anxiety is also her One Big Chance to achieve her dreams, and especially since she’s only able to afford college because of a scholarship, I can understand why it’s so vital for her to succeed at The Plan.
The Hero: Mickey
Mickey does have his eye-roll-y immature moments, but on the whole, he’s such a super sweet and considerate guy. An early scene where he does a Hulk Smash to cheer Clara up made me fall in love with him myself, and another scene later on where he basically gives her a reality check about her insistence on sticking to The Plan made me want to stand up and cheer. He’s a good guy, and in many ways, such a wonderful boyfriend. Honestly, as much as I understood Clara’s desire to focus on her studies and not get into a romantic relationship, there were also so many moments I wanted to scream at her to <b><i>not let this one go!</i></b>
Oh my god, this book had so much Pampanga love, it was wonderful! Clara’s love for, and pride in, her hometown shines through in so many ways. I love the references to Mt Pinatubo, Mt Arayat, a bunch of other tourist destinations, and, of course, all the yummy Pampanga delicacies. I love the tidbit that pork sisig originated in Pampanga, and I love how, even though Clara’s mom usually serves it only at their resort restaurant, there’s a scene where she cooks it for Clara at home to cheer her up. I love learning about Kapampangan mochi (compared to Japanese mochi, it has a chewier skin and caramelized glaze, and is dipped in coconut cream), and seeing the simple halo-halo in-a-cup at Clara’s family’s resort. Aquino does such a beautiful job of making Pampanga — and Clara’s family’s resort — real for us, and I want to visit so badly.
As a 90s kid, I also loved the references to the 1990s Pinatubo eruption. I still remember the thick dust in the air, and the news reports of volcanic destruction, and Clara and Mickey’s investigation into the event for a school assignment brought it all back for me. There’s a great passage about “grey lahar” covering nearby villages, and the “spirit of bayanihan” bringing neighbours together to rebuild. “Lahar” isn’t a term I come across often (or at all, I think, ever since I left the Philippines), and that single word just made the reference feel so real to me.
I also appreciated a scene at a Manila church where Clara encounters an elderly couple speaking Ilocano. I don’t often see Filipino languages other than Tagalog in books, and they’re practically non-existent in Filipino-American novels, so I love that Aquino included not just Kapampangan, but also Ilocano in this novel.
Family is a huge part of this book, and Aquino sets up a stark contrast between Clara’s and Mickey’s family situations. I love how complex the dynamics in both families are, and how much each main character’s respective family situations played a part in their personal growth. There’s a powerful moment where Clara’s mom tells her that plans change, and not always in the ways we like, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sound advice, and I love how it adds a sense of hope to an otherwise difficult situation. I also love the dynamic between Clara and her older cousin Val, and I love how Val adds a touch of levity to counterbalance some of Clara’s super seriousness.
Read this book!
Full disclosure: the author’s a good friend of mine, which means I wouldn’t have bashed this book no matter what. But friendship alone also wouldn’t have made me gush over a book this much. I can honestly say this book made me feel a wide range of emotions. It made me respond on a deep and visceral level, and that to me is a marker of a really good book.
There were times I was super annoyed at Mickey, and other times I was super annoyed at Clara. (There’s one moment in particular when Mickey apologizes and I had no idea why; from my perspective, Clara was the one who had to grovel and beg for forgiveness at that point!) But mostly, I thought the characters felt like real people, with all of the messiness and potential for growth that reality entails.
And because they felt real, even in my moments of annoyance, for most of the book, I was rooting for these characters, both individually and as a couple. I wanted them to grow and be better, and to find what they needed in each other. I think they did by the end of the book, and more importantly, I think they’ll continue to do so long after the book has ended.
And I’m going to be cheering them on all the way.
Thank you to the author for an advanced e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I’m also excited for the Kindle copy I purchased, which includes a full-colour map of Clara’s family’s resort!