“It’s a shame you aren’t more like your sister” is a sentiment that’s all too familiar to 17-year-old Moon Fuentez, the protagonist of Raquel Vasquez Gilliland’s second YA novel, How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe. Moon has grown accustomed to being unfavorably compared to her sister, Star. Despite being twins, the two of them couldn’t be more different.
First, Moon and Star look nothing alike. While Moon has “skin brown as acorns, hair black like basil seeds, and a figure as curvy as a mountain range,” the slender Star’s skin is “the color of wheat” and her light brown hair is bleached white blonde. Moon thinks her sister “looks like she belongs on Game of Thrones, with a dragon curled around each shoulder.”
Second, Star is a social media influencer with 900,000 virtual followers. She’s a Christian model whose brand is purity. “That’s why she loves it when I edit her photos to give her an angelic glow,” Moon wisecracks, “like she’s too good to even consider that penises might exist.” In contrast, Moon is more of a loner, often irreverent, sometimes vulgar, incredibly funny, a nature lover, and artistically gifted. When she’s not working as Star’s uncredited and unpaid staff, she creates beautiful collages using natural materials and photographs them for a tarot deck she is designing. Unbeknownst to her family, who would not approve, Moon is a follower of the old ways, taught to her by her Tia Esperanza, her mother’s sister. Tia Esperanza is more like a mother to Moon than her own mother has ever been.
And that’s the third difference: The twins’ bitter, agoraphobic mother dotes on Star and shuns Moon. Ever since their father left, their mother has blamed her for everything, including bringing back “La Raíz,” the family curse that descends upon the female members once they become sexually active. For Moon, it is embodied by swarms of insects — butterflies, dragonflies, ladybugs, fireflies — a gentle but disconcerting sign that appears around her when she least expects it.
It’s all enough to send Moon’s self-image plummeting, no matter how often she uses humor to deflect: “My normally bottom-of-the-swamp self-esteem is even more sunk. It’s not just the muck of the earth, it’s inside the muck of the earth in the core of the earth, being punctured with little spears over and over again.” That’s how Moon feels when she and Star are invited to join a social media tour with a group of influencers — all young and shiny and mostly shallow.
Moon’s job is to sell their merchandise at each event, a job she shares with the hunky and acerbic Santiago, her “archnemesis.” Moon is attracted to him physically (“I probably stare longer than I should. Because muscles. They’re everywhere.”), but she likens his personality to “the Hellboy version of the Incredible Hulk.” The relationship between Moon and Santiago is the real heart of the novel. Enemies becoming lovers or “hate at first sight” is a well-worn romantic trope, but the trope is still around because it’s such great fun. As they fight and then make up, share secrets and then insults, their one-step-forward, two-steps-back dance keeps the energy of the story high and the pages turning.
Gilliland, a Johnson City resident, has created a winning character in Moon, one to whom many readers will relate. She dreams of attending art school away from her family, but her goals and theirs could not be further apart. She longs to be recognized for her talents and loved for who she is but worries that she is “too big and too loud and too much” for success and happiness to come to her. Not to mention that she’s cursed — although with loss and loneliness and guilt more than La Raíz. Watching Moon begin to recognize her own worth — and find love in the process — is one of the many treats in store for readers of this delightful book.
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.