The novel opens with the pair’s first awkward meeting on a flight to Trinidad from London. She is Shari Zamore, a Londoner of Trinidadian parentage. She is tall, slender, graceful, an “untouchable loveliness,” “more an artist’s impression than a real woman,” and she’s going to Trinidad for the first time on an extended vacation to recover from a breakup. He is Michael Chancery, Trinidadian, very attractive, and a prominent architect in the Caribbean. She thinks she recognizes him, though she is unsure where they might have met, and tries to strike up a conversation, “You look familiar. Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” But he is rude and dismissive: “I doubt very much that we have met. I doubt that I would remember even if we had. And if you really do not mind, I would like to get some sleep.” She is shocked at the depths of ire he arouses in her and vows to have nothing further to do with him, and with that the novel’s main setting, tensions, and major characters are established. But though their romance follows a predictable course, it never ceases to thrill and works arduously to pull the reader in and keep you reasonably entranced in their world.
One very strong pull is the setting itself: Trinidad. Now reader beware that the Trinidad we get is a rather exotic, romanticized one, but its depiction is not without some intentional (seeming) humor that may make it palatable for the narrow-eyed and jaded. Shari’s view of the Savannah from her guesthouse suite is of an energetic and picturesque place edged with a variety of flowers, where couples stroll hand in hand, where children try to catch tadpoles with nets, and where vendors offer iced coconut water. Frederick street is a noisy, lively, stimulating place, and as she walks along Shari notices “individuals in the masses . . . of every colour, every shade, every race . . . with every possible combination. A melting pot...” At a carnival celebration shortly after she arrives in Trinidad, she is impressed with the detailed costumes and accompanying stories, but most impressive is the sight of Michael’s bare torso and sensuous movements to the music. The sight of him is so dizzying she returns to her apartment and faints (but, as we learn in the following chapter, it could have been just a bit of sunstroke).
At Blanchisseuse, a tiny fishing hamlet on the north coast of Trinidad, the “boundless” ocean, “limitless” sky, and the “ceaseless” sweep of the cool trade winds make her feel at home, and she concludes, “this must be the seduction of the tropics.” But of course she is very aware that part of the seduction is Tools, a shirtless, six-foot-plus, Blanchisseuse native with massive muscular shoulders and arms, and a tapered narrow waist. The last leg of her tour of Trinidad and Tobago is Tobago. She goes there at a low point in her romance with Michael, and is rejuvenated by all there is to do there: glass-bottomed boat rides, a swim in the Nylon pool in the middle of the Buccoo Reef, explorations to fishing hamlets and offshore islands, and bright blue-green water edged with lacy foam in which to swim. One can easily get pulled into the tour guide-ish feel of the novel, but it is always clear that the guide is Shari who is not a native Trinidadian, and that fact allows you the liberty to take a grain of salt to go along with it...so to speak.
Though the tour guide of Trinidad and Tobago can stand on its own, it is the backdrop for the romancing pair. Their vacillations between disgust for each other--he thinks he knows her love-em-leave-em “type” and she thinks he’s rude and obnoxious--and moments when they can’t keep their hands off each other are captivating fare against the backdrop of beauty and alternating liveliness and tranquility of the country, and when they finally have sex, it’s during the only bad weather we see in the novel--a rainstorm which causes roads to flood--but it takes place in his prized rose garden on the grounds of his huge house at the top of a hill...
He could stand it no more. The playfulness--all of their dancing around each other--vanished. Savagely, he pulled away the flimsy strip of fabric [her thong panties]. It came apart in his hands and he scattered the pieces heedlessly. He kissed her hard then, mad for her, bent to engulf her breasts, and finally, he found himself on his knees, his face buried in her black bush, in a posture that was both surrender and mastery. His lips sought and found the very essence of her. Totally out of control now, he kissed and bit, making strange strangled noises deep in his throat, while she moaned and gasped and twisted against him. He grabbed the round cheeks of her ass with his hard fingers and held her captive while he devoured her...
Their tryst lasts about a week, but since it takes place only about halfway through the book, that’s not the happy ending. They break up shortly afterwards, and she goes to Tobago (at the lowest point in their romance as I mentioned earlier) to try and forget about him. Of course all goes according to expected script and they are reunited, get married, and all’s well. And just to make certain we understand that all ends well, we see them ten years later in their beautiful home at the top of a hill, complete with three children, and the sex, by all appearances, is still good. Their romance is as fittingly impervious to male and female rivals, bad weather, and baggage from past relationships as any of its novelistic kind and it creates a fantastical enough world that should satisfy the reader who is looking for escape of that sort.
And if you are not necessarily a believer in marital bliss, there is the somewhat parallel story of Shari’s cousin Wanda with a different happy ending. Wanda is a native Trinidadian, also very attractive, and she has a good job, a busy social life, and (for a while) a hot on and off romance with Allan, a native Trinidadian. But after she and Allan become engaged, she breaks it off because as she claims, “I really can’t handle the committed stuff.” And to make sure we understand that she really can’t, ten years later, she is still single and happy being an aunt to Shari’s children, and she’s convincing enough that you don’t feel sorry for her.
Café au Lait would be the perfect book to take along on a trip to the beach. It offers a Trinidadian setting that would make any tourism board proud, its beautiful people appear deserving of happiness on their own terms, and it all works to take the reader on a leisurely enjoyable journey through the predictable plot and language.
Last gripe-ish though. Since I quoted liberally from the novel’s best moment--sex in the rose garden--I think it’s also fitting that I should quote from its worst moment, which just happens to be part of that same best moment:
Michael cursed suddenly and drew away, panting.
“Let’s go upstairs . . . I have some condoms . . . I almost forgot . . .” His eyes were strange and wild, and he tried to pull himself back from some unknown place, some unplumbed depths.
“Don’t worry--you said you’re okay . . . I’ve been tested too . . . It’s all right . . .” She could not bear to let him go, and pulled him back to her . . .