Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Book Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

The Book of Unknown Americans has been on my radar for a few months. It’s appeared on several lists for things… no idea what those things are but I would assume they are “diverse” book lists. 

A dazzling, heartbreaking page-turner destined for breakout status: a novel that gives voice to millions of Americans as it tells the story of the love between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl: teenagers living in an apartment block of immigrant families like their own.

At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamà fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she's sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America.
What I Had to Say About It: 
At the center of the story is a married couple, Arturo and Alma Riveras, and their teen daughter Maribel. The family has moved from Mexico in search of special education services for Maribel who has suffered a brain injury. They move into an apartment in Delaware that is inhabited by other families who have immigrated from a range of Spanish- speaking countries looking for the American dream. Down the hall are the Toro’s. They immigrated 15 years ago, though 17-year-old Mayor is still struggling to find his place at school and with his father. Mayor is the second primary narrator of the book and we see the in-betweenness of being Panamanian and American.

The Riveras don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language of the larger community and must rely on the kindness of strangers and their interpreter to connect with what they need. Ever since Maribel’s accident their lives have been much more complicated, partially by their own grief and guilt. Between the pieces of the primary story, we also hear the tales of the other inhabitants of the apartments who share pieces of their move to Delaware. For most it was meant to be a temporary stop on their way to somewhere else.

The writing is wonderful and there’s a connection to the characters. The stories are wonderful and highlight the complicated histories that people harbor within them, regardless of country of origin. The book description sets this up as a love story, which threatens to miss the larger story completely, I think.
 The audiobook uses a cast to vary the voices which is a plus. There are several scenes in the book that really drive home the privilege of living in a place where most people speak the language you speak.

Just as the Riveras and the Toros are starting to figure out that their children are becoming their own people with their own dreams, tragedy strikes fast and hard. For some, the abrupt ending will be enough to change their minds about loving this book. On the other hand, the nasty taste in your mouth is likely a good reflection of frustration of having a life that hinges so drastically on events beyond your control.

Other things to look at:

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