Angel & Hannah: A Novel in Verse by Ishle Park
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Perhaps feeling nostalgic about my own young first love plays a part in why I enjoyed reading about the relationship of Hannah and Angel. Angel and Hannah is also the namesake of this novel in verse by Ishle Yi Park.
Angel and Hannah are the epitome of being young and in love and believing themselves to be grown enough to take on the world. Hannah is a first-gen Korean-American from Jamaica Queens, whose parents, no surprise, disapprove of her interracial relationship with Puerto Rican Angel from Brooklyn. Their disapproval would run even deeper if they knew he’s a drug dealing high school drop-out. Nevertheless, Angel shows up at Hannah’s graduation with a $2 rose from the bodega. So sweet. Not long afterwards, Hannah packs her stuff and leaves home as her mother silently hopes that Hannah’s father won’t beat her daughter as he beats her.
Unlike Hannah’s parents, Angel’s family and friends welcome her into the circle. Prior to moving in with him, she often lied to her parents, claiming she was meeting with a friend to study when in fact she was sneaking to be with him. She felt safe and happy with Angel:
“They lay curled in bed, like two commas facing each other. Quiet, creating a heart, a nest, a space for home.”
Things are good between the two until they aren’t. Street life catches up to Angel with multiple arrests leading to Hannah spending her hard-earned paralegal salary on his legal fees. Hannah knows that crime and hungry days and nights are not conditions to raise a child, although she plays Big Sister/Mother to Angel’s younger brother, Rafi who’s “got a secret tucked in his red blood cells.”
Angel is Hannah’s first love and lover. There’s even a funny scene in which Angel ends up having to dip his penis in milk to soothe the burn from the Hot Cheetos residue that Hannah had been eating as they watched The Simpsons.
Books, like songs and movies, sometimes enter our lives in a moment that mirrors what we’re going through. I bought this two-hour audiobook months ago when Park was a guest speaker in writer’s workshop I attended. It sat in my Audible library until a few days ago when I happened to finish another Audible purchase as I await some of my Libby holds to come in.
During these past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my own doomed first love, not out of romantic nostalgia but because after nearly twenty years, he popped up unexpectedly. It would be false to say I never thought about him, but right now I don’t have to wonder. I’m able to ask questions and be reminded about things long forgotten. Like Angel and Hannah, we were young, in love and dealing with adult life issues that we were ill-equipped to deal with—namely keeping our relationship afloat. Angel loves Hannah, but he’s unable to support her financially, at least not stably and legally. She faces the financial brunt of their relationship. Although Hannah loves Angel very much, she wonders if he is her forever. Same, Hannah, same.
Set in 1990s New York, Angel & Hannah is broken up into seasons and is a modern re-telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Through their hard times, Hannah often reflects on how the other couple may have had it easier than she and Angel, “but unlike the trusty Romeo and Juliet, our heroes don’t commit suicide.” They continue to live, love, and figure it out.
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