Thursday, September 18, 2014

#Diversiverse Review: The Book of Unknown Americans

Cristina Henriquez's novel The Book of Unknown Americans is
is mainly about two families. The Toro family moved to the US years ago from Panama and have assimilated pretty completely into American life. The father works at a restaurant, the older son has a soccer scholarship for college, and the second son, Mayor, is in his rebellious stage in high school, trying not to be (negatively) compared to his brother all the time. The Rivera family has recently moved to the US. Maribel, the teenage daughter, recently had an accident that caused brain damage, and her parents brought her to the US for better care.

The story is narrated by Maribel’s mother, Alma, and Mayor, the rebellious younger son of the Toro family. Every couple of chapters, there are interludes in which other minor characters share their life stories. These interludes were my favorite part of the book. I loved seeing a character in one light and then learning about her difficult life path and gaining a better understanding of what made her the way she was. I loved hearing stories of how people met and how they all decided to move to the small apartment block in Delaware in which they all ended up. And what they’ve done since they arrived there.

I also really enjoyed Alma’s voice. Henriquez wrote about her struggles wonderfully – her guilt over Maribel’s accident, her inability to come to terms with the fact that her daughter will never be the same, her terror in a new country where she feels she cannot protect her daughter from harm, and the way all of these things affect her relationship with her husband. Alma was such a well-developed character, and her fears and concerns became my fears and concerns, too. I also appreciated that for Alma, it was the white characters and the Americans that were frightening. Most of the time, we hear the other side of the story, but through Alma’s eyes, we can see just how menacing Americans can be to foreigners, especially those who don’t speak English well and have beautiful, disabled children.

I didn’t like Mayor’s sections nearly as much. I admit that I was a little disturbed by Mayor’s obsession with Maribel, a mentally handicapped girl who also happened to be breath-takingly beautiful. Would he have felt so drawn to her if she wasn’t beautiful? I think readers are supposed to believe that Mayor and Maribel are totally in love and meant to be together (at least, we are told that multiple times by Mayor), but I didn’t buy it. And Mayor’s complete disregard for Maribel’s parents’ wishes or his own parents rules were maybe true to his life stage, but again, it really felt like he took advantage of Maribel, and I was pretty uncomfortable with that. Maybe if Maribel had a voice in the story, it would have felt better. But we never hear her side of anything, and so it felt a lot like she just kind of went with Mayor because it was easy, not really because she wanted it.

Unfortunately, Mayor is a pretty key character in this book so his sections impacted my overall enjoyment of this novel. But for the interludes from the minor characters alone, and for Alma’s story, it’s well worth reading this book. I really enjoyed hearing the life stories of so many people (this is particularly excellent in the audiobook, as there are multiple narrators for these sections, all with very distinct voices).


  1. I could read it, I just do not care for Mayor,

  2. Anonymous9/18/2014

    I liked this one a lot and I agree with you about Alma's voice. The author did SUCH a good job of showing the reader just how difficult and scary life is for people new to this country who speak little or no English - everything is absolutely terrifying. I felt Alma's fear and pain. Have you read anything else by Henriquez? She wrote an earlier novel that I LOVED - The World in Half.

  3. This has been on my radar for a while and I'm still intrigued, but a little worried about Mayor's parts. That seems like it would be uncomfortable to read. Did you get the sense that that was intentional?

    1. No, I have talked to other people about the book and they said they thought Mayor was just being a teenager. So maybe it was just me that was made uncomfortable by it. Either way, I thought he was a pretty self-absorbed kid, so he definitely wasn't my favorite.

  4. This has been on my radar for a while, but now your discomfort with Mayor gives me pause. I'm often overly sensitive to those types of relationships. Interesting thoughts.


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