Reminiscent of Jean Kwok's "Girl in Translation", Cristina Henriquez's new novel is a powerful and compelling story of the contemporary American experience. The main characters, Alma, Arturo, and Maribel Rivera, move to Delaware in order to seek special education for teenage Maribel after she suffers a tragic accident in their hometown in Mexico. They move into an apartment building where they meet other Spanish-speaking immigrants from Venezuela to Puerto Rico to Panama, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The families in this story struggle with issues that other Americans never think about: maintaining visa status, finding jobs, feeding their families, fearing racial profiling by the police, and trying to ward off bullies who don't accept them as Americans. The main story centers around Maribel and her friendship with Mayor, a teenage boy in her building.
I love the structure of the story, which is told mainly through the point of view of Alma and Mayor, but also from half a dozen other characters who play more of a supporting role. I found that these different voices just added to the richness of the story.
Although this book is adult literary fiction, it's also a must-read for teenagers and other young adults.
Gosh, it's hard to say anything critical about a novel that focuses on the unknown Americans -- the recent immigrants -- who come to this country with hopes and dreams, only to find that life is not the fairytale they anticipated. It's a worthy topic to read about, especially with the demonizing of immigrants through certain media. And Cristina Henriquez is a fluid writer with an easy-to-read style; she know her craft and she definitely is good at what she does.
The thing is, it just seemed a bit too YA for me. Now, there's nothing wrong with young adult literature. In fact, some of it is quite nuanced (as is this one). But I wanted something more. I wanted an immigrant story such as ones I've read by Junot Diaz, Dinaw Mengestu, or Kiran Desai, to name three. In other words, less a story and more of an explorative journey.
For what it is, this book is good. It focuses mainly on a teenager from Panama, Mayor, who falls in love with Maribel, a brain-damaged 15-year-old whose family hails from Mexico. Punctuating the forward thrust of this star-crossed tale are stories from other Latino immigrants from Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and, in fact, all across Central and Latin America. My one criticism is that there is not a strong differentiation of voices.
Book reviews are personal. I would never discourage anyone from reading this book, which admittedly, is quite good. This is just one person's reaction.
Maribel's life has been cut short of the promise of her childhood. In traveling to Delaware, her parents are determined to restore all of the promise robbed by an accident one sunny day. They are not the usual people of the American dream, they had loved their life in Mexico. Just so their friends had left Panama under threat, but miss its smells and rhythms.
I love the story of Mayor who sees the person the Mirabel remains and treasures her for her quiet attention to him and his world. Their relationship sets a type of frame for the lives of the families as they attempt to be the best of unknown Americans.
This is a novel of unlovely places made dear by the attention and intent of those who live within them. I find it quiet in scope, but not slow and not picky. Shining moments are let to shine without fanfare or hyperbole. I just really liked the style of this prose. Many moments break your heart, but they are of a piece with life. I find the book a lovely and important look at a corner of the world.
on June 5, 2014
This book's title hooked me first. I was infinitely intrigued by the promise of reading about the 'unknown' Americans. The first chapter continued to pull me in, balancing a bit of dramatic suspense, while concurrently sounding very real. The stand-alone tales were brilliant also (in fact the parts I enjoyed the most.)
As the novel continued, I started to feel a little disappointed. the main story line which began as a compelling combo of teen love, the perils of immigration, and general familial guilt angst and love, didn't gel for me. Writing down the themes makes me realize my disappointment stems from a feeling that the central plot was just a little bit forced, too many issues crammed into too few characters.
I feel the need to point out that this was just my reaction to the story and objectively I think most would enjoy the story in all its drama filled intensity. One particular strength of Henriquez is the ability to summon multiple voices to the page, which is what made the stand-alone tales so powerful, especially given the point of view is first person throughout.
This book seems destined for greatness, if not at least niche brilliance. The flaws mentioned above are hardly game-breakers considering the content was still several steps more artful then some pulp romance and the unique voices found among the pages will surely resonant with readers for many a night.
In the community of Latino immigrants, from places as diverse as Mexico and Panama and Puerto Rico, are the unknown Americans, the people you don't really see, because you only see the label. They have their own lives rich in culture, language, struggles, dreams, success and tragedy, but to the native-born, they are just background.
This wonderful novel tells the story of some of these invisible people, particularly the Rivera family, Arturo and Alma, and their beautiful, perfect daughter, Mirabel, who was never right after a tragic accident. The Riveras came to America so she could have special schooling, but they could never have imagined what would happen here.
The story is told through various points of view, each chapter given to a different character. Some are fully realized, others are just sketched in outline, creating the sense of a neighborhood or community within which the action takes place.
Author Cristina Henriquez does a brilliant job of telling their story. Her writing is simple, down-to-earth, lucid and engaging. The story draws you in and compels you to read on, even as the story becomes unbearably sad. No, I won't tell you what happens. You just have to read this one, and I highly recommend it. One of the best books I've read this year. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber.
on July 1, 2014
Arturo and Alma Rivera lived a happy life in Mexico until their beautiful teenage daughter, Maribel, sustains a serious injury in an accident. Unsure if she'll ever be the same again, they migrate to the United States—Delaware, specifically—where Maribel will be able to attend a special school and hopefully begin to recover some semblance of normalcy. But America is difficult for the Riveras—the job Arturo secures to sponsor their journey to America is brutal, Maribel doesn't seem to be making much progress in school, and Alma struggles with English, and trying to become acclimated to a different life.
"Because a place can do many things against you, and if it's your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it. That's how it works."
The one bright spot is that the Riveras meet Celia and Rafael Toro, who came to the U.S. years ago to escape the destruction and violence in Panama. The Toros are more settled into their American lives, although Celia in particular longs to return home, at least for a visit. And when their teenage son, Mayor, who struggles with self-confidence in the shadow of his more athletic, popular older brother, sets eyes on Maribel for the first time, he finds himself completely in her thrall, and wants nothing more to spend time with her, despite what others perceive as her challenges.
As the relationship between the Riveras and the Toros grows stronger, it is tested—as are relationships within each family—by secrets, incorrect assumptions, fears, longing, and struggles. And a number of incidents occur which set in motion a chain of events which will affect each member of both families in vastly different ways.
Cristina Henriquez's The Book of Unknown Americans gives a powerful and moving glimpse into the immigrant experience for many Latin American people. In addition to telling the story of the Rivera and Toro families, the plot is interwoven with brief testimonials from other neighbors, each of whom came from a different Latin American country and experienced different struggles and happinesses upon arriving in America. This is a book that makes you think a little bit more about the challenges and barriers people often deal with when coming to America, even legally.
I thought this was a very captivating read, and Henriquez is an excellent storyteller. While some of her characters may seem familiar, I thought she imbued them with interesting characteristics and quirks that made them more complex. I read this book very quickly, and found it an emotionally rich story I'm still thinking about.
on June 10, 2014
Newark, Delaware is the unspectacular setting of Cristina Henríquez’ novel The Book of Unknown Americans. A small, average, American city that could be just around the corner from where you live. A wonderful choice of setting for a novel full of immigrant tales that stand for so many real immigrant tales out there. Cristina Henríquez knows how to create setting. One of my favorite scenes happens right at the beginning, when the Riveras walk down the main road trying to find a supermarket and finally have to buy groceries at the gas station instead. Within less than a page, Ms Henríquez manages to create the perfect US-American scenery, at least as it appears to strangers.
The Book of Unknown Americans focuses on the story of Maribel and Mayor (a boy from Panama) but it is alternately told from the viewpoints of Mayor and Maribel’s mother Alma. Alma is a very powerful character. She knows and loves her daughter the way only a mother does. In addition to that, Alma is the one who suggested emigrating to the United States and now she gives the reader the chance to live through all her doubts and worries. Interspersed between Mayor and Alma’s accounts, you will find an abundance of secondary characters telling their own stories. These little biographies fit in perfectly and help to understand the secondary characters’ personalities.
Like many other novels dealing with the topic of immigration, The Book of Unknown Americans starts out with the Riveras’ arrival in the United States, but where Ms Henríquez takes it from there is somewhere a little different. This book might not nearly sum up all the varying immigrant biographies out there, but it can give us a taste of what it can be like to come to a new country where most people will be prejudiced against you. The Book of Unknown Americans tells a story full of hopes and dreams and when I think of it, I’m still getting goosebumps. Cristina Henríquez wrote a novel that takes time to digest and you won’t and shouldn’t forget about it all too soon. The Book of Unknown Americans is an important book, a book that, in my opinion, should become an obligatory part of the US American high-school curriculum. Read it!
The Book of Unknown Americans has been hailed as one of the better novels of this past year. I was eager to read it. I read it fairly quickly, pages turning, yet leaving little deep resonance in my mind. Author Cristina Henriquez is a good writer, descriptive and economic in her style. Yet, in my final assessment, it was a fairly unremarkable book.
My problem with it is that it is weighted down with far too many clichés. The characters were simple near-stereotypes, the plot a pedestrian tale of immigrants, and the finale felt forced and inconsistent. Additionally, a host of characters are introduced with little to no follow-up, each of their tired back stories presented in a page of two of text, interrupting the flow of the story. In particular, as the story came to its climax, the inclusion of these distractions was inexplicable.
Perhaps Ms. Henriquez tried to do too much with this novel. Certainly the novel didn't really benefit from the inclusion of so many unnecessary characters, nor was the climax satisfactory. It felt like a Hollywood-ized contrivance that didn't suit the story up to that point. Was the book supposed to be a young adult-ish romance or a commentary on the difficult lives of immigrants? Was the title supposed to refer to all of the "unknown" individuals who do landscaping, drive taxis, or wear masks while they do mani-pedis for indulgent Americans? If so, was this meant to be some wake-up call to everyone? Does she believe that her book will find its way into the hands of the Fox News anti-immigration crowd and change some minds? These are questions that the book never answers. I would've found those answers more valuable than this largely predictable story full of stock, two-dimensional characters.
It's an easy and superficial read, which means the author misfired on one aspect of what could've been a much more powerful story. Every immigrant has stories to tell and hardships to bear. Those stories alone, stripped of contrivances and presented in a more honest manner, are sufficient enough, and don't require stereotypes or hackneyed climaxes to compel the reader forward.
Arturo and Alma Rivera move to the United States from Mexico after their fifteen year old daughter, Maribel, sustains a head injury at one of Arturo's construction sites. They are desperate to help their daughter in any way they can, and move to Delaware, a land completely foreign to them. The weather and language are just two of the challenges that the Rivera's face on a daily basis.
Eventually they make friends with the Toro family, who have moved from Panama to the United States. Their paths continue to cross, and despite Arturo and Alma's hesitation and concern, the Toros' son, Mayor, befriends Maribel - her first and only friend in their new home.
Interspersed with the Rivera's story, there are stories of other immigrants that have come to the United States, giving a broader perspective to the growing number of Central and South American people who move to the United States.
As I read this book, I could see the Riveras as a family from my school, which has a large Latino population. This story is one that represents immigrants well, showing them to be hard working and conscientious. Henriquez captures this perfectly when Arturo loses his job because of a time he missed work for a meeting at Maribel's school. Alma cannot believe this could happen:
"I thought I could call the boss and explain the situation. Maybe if he knew about Maribel, he would have some sympathy. Maybe if he knew what it meant to us. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. We had followed the rules. We had said to ourselves, We won't be like everyone else, those people who packed up and went north without waiting first for the proper authorization. We were no less desperate than them. We understood, just as they did, how badly a person could want a thing - money, or peace of mind, or a better education for their injured daughter, or just a chance, a chance! at this thing called life..."
I could feel Alma's pain and desperation, and she was a character that I could easily relate to despite our different living situations. Henriquez's characters are not only very human, they also feel like friends, people I could sit with and drink a cup of tea.
Henriquez is an author that is new to me, but I can't wait to read more of her work.
on September 10, 2015
Very disheartening to see what emigrants have to tolerate. And sometimes in their own families. I understand a great deal more how hopeful people can be looking for a better life in the US and the great disappointment. Often, only luck, being in the right place at the right time seems to make the difference. I am so sad to see their hopefulness dissolved.