4 stars for The Book of Unknown Americans

the book of unknown americansI’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.

Best Book Quotes of the Week

Best Book Lines

So many quotes made me stop and think this week. Here are a few.

From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

“And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping it’s wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.”

Restless joy is such a great image. So many great books involve characters afraid of their own joy. Ifemelu is no exception. This quote is the moment my heart opened up to her in this book. I am taking my time reading her story and enjoying the language Adichie uses to tell it.

 

From Cristina Henriquez, The Book of Unknown Americans

“I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”

Henriquez is speaking specifically of the immigrant experience, but this quote resonated with me as some who always feels a little apart from the mainstream. I don’t think that’s a product of my Mexican heritage, but perhaps is roots are there. Se hit the nail on the head with the feeling of being “simultaneously conspicuous and invisible.” Maybe that’s a place we’ve all been?

 

From Laura McBride, We Are Called to Rise

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I never knew what I was doing. I just jumped in and tried, no manual, I tried as hard as I could, and for the second time in my son’s life, I missed the important cue.”

This one hit me like a punch in the gut. These are seriously true words about motherhood. There is not training or guidebook that can possibly prepare us for truly knowing what we are doing. Am I making mistake? Am I missing important cues? I only know that I’m trying as hard as I can.

 

From Pearl S. Buck

“Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.”

My favorite Goodreads quote of the day this week. I hold these words as a reminder of how I choose to live my life. I don’t want to chase the big dream so hard that I lose sight of the everyday blessings. I really think the blogosphere celebrates this philosophy. So many of us are writing about the seemingly “small joy” moments of beauty and laughter and love that fills our days. I really enjoyed The Good Earth when I read it with my book club. I may have to add another Pearl Buck to my list.

 

From Kate Atkinson, interviewed by Melvyn Bragg on ‘The South Bank Show’ [Sky Arts]

“Fiction is about making the chaos in my head into objective external order.”

All credit for finding this quote goes to sandra danby, a blog I only recently discovered. I encourage you to read Sandra’s original thoughts on this quote. It resonates with me, not only because I’m a big fan of Atkinson’s work, but because I’m attracted to the idea that we can make sense of the chaos in our heads. I think it explains why I always journaled, now blog. When I can set my thoughts down, I can organize them, at least a bit.

 

Looking for more great quotes?

Check out: Thursday Quotables at Bookshelf Fantasies.

 

I’d love to know what lines have caught your attention.