I’ve waited to post a review of this novel as I try to wrap my mind (and words) around why I liked it so much. This book wants to be a lot of things – love story, issue-oriented novel, independent essays – which should make it a mess, but somehow all the components work together to make a book that really touched my heart.
The story is told in alternating voices as we meet the residents of an apartment building in Delaware. All the residents are immigrants and all are Spanish-speaking despite their origins in multiple different countries. The bulk of the story, its heart really, is a love story between Panamanian Mayor, whose family has been in the U.S. since he was a few years old, and Maribel, a beautiful but brain injured girl whose family has made the journey from Mexico so she can have a better education. Their journey together, with all its ups and downs, challenges and epiphanies, is the stuff of great YA fiction.
But Henriquez does not stop with the love story. She delves deeper into the lives of their parents and their neighbors. We get to know these immigrants, some of them citizens, some of them illegals and each gets the chance to tell his or her story. This is tricky as Henriquez inhabits over a dozen voices, men and women, young and old. The fact that she pulls this off sympathetically is a testament to her great writing.
Obviously immigration is a very sensitive political subject and one that’s deeply personal as my father was born in Mexico and came to Chicago as a very young boy. I often found myself wondering if my grandparents, father and aunts and uncles faced the same issues and hardships as these characters.
“I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”
It’s too late for me to ask my dad if he felt simultaneously conspicuous and invisible as a young man, but this line opened a space in my heart. Likewise, I thought of the many half-English, half-Spanish conversations I had with my Lita growing up as I read about women trying to make a life and hold their families together in a new country.
“That first day, the words were merely sounds in the air, broken like shards of glass, beautiful from a certain angle and jagged from another.”
Henriquez does an excellent job of presenting these characters and the issues they face without coming down hard on any side of the political debate. Her characters are simply human.
“People do what they have to do in this life. We try to get from one end of it to the other with dignity and with honor. We do the best we can.”
I was touched and moved by the small stories and the central families is this lovely novel.
This is the second Henriquez novel I’ve read, having previously enjoyed The World in Half. She is definitely an author to watch.
4 thoughts on “4 stars for The Book of Unknown Americans”
This sounds like a fantastic book. I’m trying to read more diversely, and this is definitely going on the TBR list. Great review!
Thanks Leah. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Slowly making my way through Americanah, definitely diverse and a whole new perspective on what it means to be minority.
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