Exclusive preview: Lilliam Rivera's next novel spins a Bronx-set Greek myth retelling
One of YA’s most exciting emerging voices, Lilliam Rivera is putting a fresh spin on a classic myth for her next novel.
Never Look Back, a contemporary Orpheus and Eurydice retelling set in the Bronx, centers on a vibrant, compelling romance between a girl haunted by tragedy and a dreamy bachata singer. As the pair falls in love and faces mystical dangers, their story raises questions about cultural identity, overcoming trauma, and the power of first love. Rivera, whose last book Dealing in Dreams earned critical acclaim, draws from Latinx traditions of spirituality, folklore, and storytelling.
Rivera has shared with EW the official cover for Never Look Back, with art by Krystal Quiles, as well as an exclusive excerpt, which you can read below. The novel publishes Sept. 1 and is available for pre-order.
Excerpt from Never Look Back, by Lilliam Rivera
If it’s a Saturday, then two things are true. First, trains heading uptown will forever be late, no matter what. Deadass. It’s as if the MTA decides anyone going past 125th Street must not be worth the trouble. So what if you thought the train you got on downtown was an express 5? It doesn’t matter. Right now, it’s a local. No, wait, scratch that. Right now the train you’ve been chilling on for the past half hour has decided to not even enter the Boogie Down. Who cares if you have things to do? Trains heading uptown are bound to be cut off. It’s like living back in the Middle Ages when people thought the world was flat. The Bronx is like that for most people who don’t live there: the end of the world, the last frontier, the . . . Whatever. If it’s a Saturday, you are destined to do the MTA shuffle, where you figure out how best to make it to your destination.
“You’ve got to wait for the four or transfer to the bus,” says the conductor. I wonder how many times he’s had to explain this. He gives me the shrug. I give him the shrug back. What else is there to do? It’s Saturday morning, and I’m bound to be late no matter how early I am.
Moms hounded me last night right in the middle of my writing session. I had the dopest hook for this new song. It sounds a little like Romeo Santos’s “Imitadora,” but way more sensual. I already have the first verse down. It’s got the perfect combination the girls like—a little vulnerability, a little roughness. Throw in some Spanish, and it’s de lo mio. This summer is going to be me working on this new song until it feels right. Shine them words until they glisten like gold.
“Pero dónde tengo que ir?” An old lady sitting across from me talks to herself. I feel bad. Who knows how long she’s been planning this excursion?
“Tienes que ir afuera e tomar el bus, o puedes esperar aquí por el cuatro,” I say. She does a slight double take; it’s subtle, but I notice it. Some people see my skin color and think, he must be Black. I am. I’m also Dominican. I’m the best of both worlds. Just ask Melaina and all them girls uptown I’m about to smash this summer.
The old lady thanks me for helping her figure out how to get to her stop. I start my own journey and head aboveground with the rest of the sad passengers. Sometimes I wish I drove a car, blasting AC and my own music. A summer with wheels. Why can’t I be about that life? I strap my guitar to my back and head out.
The second truth is no matter the time, the sun will greet you with a “diablo, hoy te mato con calor.”
It’s not even officially summer, and this viejo standing next to me on this packed bus is dripping sweat. El viejo decides to provide his own musical accompaniment. He turns up the volume on the song playing on his phone. I recognize the tune right away. It’s a song my pops likes to play when he’s feeling melancholy. “Donde Estará” by Antony Santos.
Pops taught me to sing that song when I was six. It didn’t matter where we were. In front of the apartment building I grew up. The park. At the beach. After a few Presidentes he would inevitably hoist me up on his shoulders and I would sing. This was when my parents were together, before she kicked him out and he headed back uptown to be with his people. I feel sad, too, whenever I hear the song. A reminder of the fam when we were a fam and not this disjointed thing.
As soon as my right foot hits the pavement on my pops’s block, I hear from one of my boys. It’s Jaysen. He holds a large cooler.
“Getting ready?” I ask after giving him the dap.
I met Jaysen seven years ago when we were about ten. It was my first summer with Pops after the separation, and he was depressed. He didn’t want to do anything, just stare at the wall and listen to boleros 24-7. I couldn’t take it, so I headed to the handball courts, bored out of my mind. Jaysen was the only boy my age out there. I acted aloof until Jaysen asked if I wanted to play. We spent the whole summer beating all them suckers. His father works for the Department of Parks and Rec like my father did before he got on disability.
“You coming, right?” Jaysen asks. He rubs the back of his neck, trying to squash the heat. His latest tattoo on his arm is the Puerto Rican independence flag. It’s coming in nicely.
“Definitely. First trip to Orchard,” I say. “Not missing it for the world. I’m probably going to be—”
“Late. Bro, you always late,” Jaysen says. “Isn’t that Penelope?”
I turn to follow his gaze.
“Yo, Penelope!” I’ve known Penelope for as long as I’ve known Jaysen. She lives in the same building as my pops. Penelope is smart and funny. She’s definitely wifey material.
Penelope pulls luggage from the trunk of her parents’ car. I can’t really make out who she’s with. I guess it’s family.
“We seeing you today?” Jaysen asks. “Am I right? You’re not missing it? Huh, Penelope?”
Jaysen’s been bugging everyone via text, making sure we show up. He is relentless. Sometimes I have to tell him to chill the hell out. It never really works, though. He’s a hype man when no one really needs one.
“Can’t you see I’m busy?” Penelope screams back. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Maybe.”
Penelope turns to the car and holds the door open. A girl about our age steps out. She has a thick curtain of long coily hair that practically engulfs her. I’ve never seen her before. Penelope hugs the girl and they walk into the building.
“Who was that?” I ask.