A boy and a girl who fall in love. Two families whose hopes collide with destiny. An extraordinary novel that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be American.
Arturo and Alma Rivera have lived their whole lives in Mexico. One day, their beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, sustains a terrible injury, one that casts doubt on whether she ll ever be the same. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better.
When Mayor Toro, whose family is from Panama, sees Maribel in a Dollar Tree store, it is love at first sight. It s also the beginning of a friendship between the Rivera and Toro families, whose web of guilt and love and responsibility is at this novel s core.
Woven into their stories are the testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Latin America. Their journeys and their voices will inspire you, surprise you, and break your heart.
Suspenseful, wry and immediate, rich in spirit and humanity, "The Book of Unknown Americans" is a work of rare force and originality."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-03-24
- Reviewer: Staff
In Henríquez’s latest, Arturo and Alma Rivera move from Pátzcuaro, Mexico, to Delaware in hopes of securing a good education for their beautiful teenage daughter, Maribel, who has suffered a traumatic brain injury. Alone, isolated by language and poverty, the Riveras struggle to get by: Arturo works 10 hours a day at a mushroom farm, while Alma worries about predatory men taking advantage of her daughter. In the same apartment building lives Mayor Toro, the misfit son of Panamanian immigrants, who soon falls in love with Maribel. The budding romance, however, threatens to tear their families apart. Meanwhile, Henríquez (The World in Half) gives space to the voices of other immigrants—men and women who have fled their South American and Central American homes to make a better life in a country that, as often as not, refuses to acknowledge their existence. Evoking a profound sense of hope, Henríquez delivers a moving account of those who will do anything to build a future for their children—even if it means confronting the fear and alienation lurking behind the American dream. Agent: Julie Barer, Barer Literary. (June)
Private lives of immigrants, told in chorus
In these heady days of immigration non-reform in the United States, it is worth recalling that much of this nation’s territory was once the property of Mexico, and that many immigrants have fled violence whose source can be traced to America, whether through military aid, drug demand and interdiction or flat-out invasion. One such family is the subject of Cristina Henríquez’s illuminating novel The Book of Unknown Americans, a kind of anti-census in which the statistics of Latino immigration are run backward to reveal individual struggles.
The Toro family has fled from Panama, invaded by the United States in 1989. They end up in Delaware, where they help foster a community of fellow Latinos. These include the Riveras, Mexicans who have come north to provide special education for their teenage daughter, Maribel. She had fallen from a ladder back home and was consequently afflicted with brain damage. Her father finds degrading work picking mushrooms, while her mother Alma struggles to learn English and stomach bland American food.
Despite her condition, Maribel manages to charm young Mayor Toro, who finds her beauty reason enough to be patient with her halting speech and unusual behavior. But their parents’ relatively conservative values conspire to confound the young lovers’ devotions, ultimately with tragic consequences for the entire community. It’s less Romeo and Juliet than a post-9/11 Latino American Beauty, set in the thick of the Great Recession, which caused many Latinos to doubt America’s long-term attractiveness. Suffice it to say that gun violence isn’t unique to Latin America, or to Latinos.
While Henríquez’s focus is these two families, each chapter is told in the first person by many individuals, using a technique exemplified by Faulkner. But this is hardly avant-garde literature and is all the more engrossing for that. In its style and themes, it recalls the writings of Jhumpa Lahiri, though from the perspective of a very different class. Clearly Henríquez’s main interest is her characters, all of whom, however officious or self-pitying, are sympathetic. Whether by intention or accident, her only two flat and sinister characters are white. The Book of Unknown Americans is ultimately a hopeful book about the pursuit of happiness, whatever the source of the misery left behind.