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The Book of Unknown Americans

Review

The Book of Unknown Americans

Cristina Henríquez’s previous books have focused on the complicated story of modern Panama. In her first, COME TOGETHER, FALL APART, Henríquez used a novella and several short stories to offer a multifaceted portrait of contemporary Panama, a world unknown or only vaguely familiar to many Americans. Her debut novel, THE WORLD IN HALF, depicted a young American woman discovering the breadth of her Panamanian back story. Now, with THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS, Henríquez offers a work of fiction that is both intimate and universal, a story of a first love between two young people --- and the global twists of fate that brought them and their families together.

Arturo and Alma Rivera have come to Delaware from Mexico because they believe that here, at a special school, their beautiful but recently brain-damaged daughter Maribel may be able to be cured, or at least helped to return to herself --- and to them. Like countless immigrants before them, their story is one of adjusting (and often lowering) expectations. Arturo, who had been a construction foreman in Mexico, works long degrading hours at one of the many mushroom-harvesting facilities over the border in Pennsylvania. Alma occupies herself by trying to learn English and by attempting to maintain family culinary traditions while still keeping within their very limited budget.

"...complex, realistic, even sad --- but also funny and, yes, fueled by optimism for a better future, for oneself or for one's children."

As for Maribel, she immediately catches the eye not only of a vaguely threatening gringo but also of Mayor Toro, who lives with his family in the same apartment complex. Recent immigrants from Panama, the Toro family has encountered some of the same challenges as the Riveras --- economic instability, prejudice, difficulty fitting in at school --- but by virtue of their proximity and the apparent friendship between their children, the two families become friendly with one another. Maribel and Mayor's tentative romance, however, soon puts not only the young lovers, but also their entire families and tenuous future as new Americans, at risk.

The fickle winds of fate blow not only through the romance at the heart of the novel but also through the stories shared by the voices of several other minor characters, other immigrants from Central and Latin America who have arrived at this same apartment complex in Delaware. Some are here to flee persecution or violence, others arrive to pursue dreams of love or education or career advancement. Nearly all of them, whether they have been in this country for decades or only for months, are surprised at the directions fate has taken them and at the unexpected turns their stories have taken. "We had bundled up our old life and left it behind," remarks Alma, "and then hurtled into a new one with only a few of our things, each other, and hope."

Although certainly many of the stories in THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS are sad or even harrowing, it's helpful to remember that hope is what drove --- and, in many cases, still drives --- the ambition and passion of the plurality of voices Henríquez introduces here. Her novel is complex, realistic, even sad --- but also funny and, yes, fueled by optimism for a better future, for oneself or for one's children.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 6, 2014

The Book of Unknown Americans
by Cristina Henríquez

  • Publication Date: June 3, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0385350848
  • ISBN-13: 9780385350846