Friday, February 6, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez is yet another novel that was nominated for a 2014 Goodreads Choice Award. Coincidentally, it is also one I had been wanting to pick up even before it was nominated. Seeing it on the list just felt like a validation to me that it really was worth checking out.

The Situation: After a tragic accident in Mexico, Alma and Arturo Rivera, with their teenage daughter Maribel, make their way to the United States after Arturo secures both a job and sponsorship from a mushroom farm in Delaware. It isn't that the Riveras are dissatisfied with life in Mexico; they simply believe that their daughter will have a better chance at healing in the United States. After her accident, she hasn't been the same vibrant, brave, and somewhat defiant girl that she was before. With Alma desperate for the return of the daughter she remembers, she convinces her husband that moving to the US is the right thing to do. Maribel has always been a beautiful girl, and she immediately catches the attention of Mayor, a nice if somewhat insecure boy her age who lives in their apartment complex in Delaware. And despite the difficulty Maribel can often have communicating, she and Mayor become good friends.

The Problem: Unfortunately, Maribel's beauty also attracts the attention of someone else, and Garrett has no interest in talking. Alma already struggles with her guilt over the accident that lead her family to leave Mexico in the first place. And now, no matter how hard she tries, she can't keep Maribel within her sights all of the time and guarantee she stays out of harm's way. She wants to tell Arturo about Garrett, but she hates the idea of making him worry, as well as the possibility of giving him anymore reasons to blame her. Of course, Maribel's problems aren't the only things the Riveras must deal with as immigrants in the US. Arturo's job at the mushroom farm isn't exactly ideal, and Alma longs to buy and make the kind of food she would have in Mexico, but can't afford it. Meanwhile, Mayor seems to be destined to spend another year of high school being picked on, and another year at home being compared to his older and more masculine brother. The lives of the two families become intertwined not only because of Maribel, but also because together they bring together all of the stories of the people who live in their apartment complex.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that tells the story of multiple people from Latin America that came to the US for various reasons. While the main narrators are Alma and Mayor as the story switches back and forth between their points of view, there are also brief sections throughout the novel that tell the first person story of others who live in the same apartment complex. The Riveras are from Mexico, while Mayor's family came from Panama, but there are others from Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Paraguay. Immigration is certainly a theme, bu there is also a great deal of culture shock, especially for Alma. While she is trying to get used to her new home, Mayor is one floor down trying to hide from his parent's fights and the threat of his father's disapproval, all while trying to get closer to Maribel. "The Book of Unknown Americans" is certainly an appropriate title as the novel tells the story of many people who have made the journey into this country, but whose stories, the real ones, have never been told.

My Verdict: Despite the book's subject matter, it wasn't as heavy or hard to read as I thought it would be. While Henriquez does not take the subject matter lightly, this book is a surprisingly easy read. And unlike many books that switch between first person narrators, I didn't find myself dreading when the story would eventually switch to one narrator and then breathe a sigh of relief when it switched back. And the brief stories from the other residents of the apartment complex were both interesting and refreshing. I suppose my only issue was with the lack of communication between the characters, but really, how else would the reader get the tension that Henriquez played with so well.

Favorite Moment: When Arturo insists to Alma that she needs to forgive herself, because it's true.

Favorite Character: While I adored Maribel, I think my favorite character was actually Celia, Mayor's mom. The woman puts up with a lot of nonsense from her husband, Rafael, but at the same time she isn't a pushover, and is a great friend to Alma.

Favorite Quote: "But as soon as there are too many of us, they throw up their hands. No, no, no! We were only just curious. We are not actually interested in you people." 

Recommended Reading: I've decided to recommend The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. Different country of origin, and a different type of immigration, but also a fabulous story.     

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