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America Is Not the Heart

Review

America Is Not the Heart

Sometimes reading a book reminds you just how little you know. Being humbled every now and then is not a bad thing, and that’s why reading a book such as AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART is so important. Elaine Castillo’s debut novel is set in the early 1990s and focuses on a family who has immigrated to Milpitas, California, at the southern tip of San Francisco Bay.

Milpitas is home to a sizeable Filipino immigrant population, but the family sometimes feels unsupported in their new home. Supporting other family members financially, coping with lack of documentation, and contending with a loss of professional status are just a few of the background issues against which the novel’s events play out.

The book opens with a fast-paced second-person account of the young adulthood of Paz, who grows up poor but uses the advantages of her light skin to achieve professional success as a nurse, as well as the attention of Pol, a playboy doctor from a wealthy family who has a reputation for bedding nurses. However, when Paz relocates from the Philippines to California, Pol decides to settle down with her, and the two marry and have an American-born child, Roni.

"Confident, rich and wide-ranging, AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART is an important story told by a bold new writer."

Nearly a decade later, the family (which now also includes some of Paz’s relatives, who have immigrated to Milpitas and who Paz supports by working two nursing jobs) grows again, as Pol’s niece Geronima --- nicknamed “Hero” by Roni --- arrives in Milpitas, primarily to serve as a sort of au pair for Roni, who has been getting into fights at school and suffers from extreme eczema. Hero, who once trained to be a doctor herself before getting involved with the Maoist National People’s Army in the Philippines (an experience that has left her literally and figuratively scarred), is skeptical about the kinds of faith healers Paz asks her to visit with Roni, but doing so introduces her to a new community of Filipino immigrants, and eventually leads to both friendship and love.

Throughout AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART, Castillo’s writing is both energetic and inventive. The numerous shifts in chronology and the frequent insertion of Tagalog and Ilocano words and phrases, most of which are included without translation, can be disorienting to English-speaking readers but ultimately helps illustrate a point Castillo makes about the fluidity of immigrants’ language and communication. Likewise, references to the political and sociocultural climate of the Philippines will prompt many readers to want to learn more about this complicated part of the world. But just as it explores other kinds of intersections, the book also includes plenty of references to American popular culture, especially popular music, of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as references to cultural touchstones such as the Rodney King beating.

Castillo’s novel is a political one, to be sure, but it’s also deeply personal, as Hero --- whose personal history has led her to completely divorce sex from love --- finds herself falling for the granddaughter of Roni’s faith healer. It also sheds real and significant light on the personal toll paid by immigrants’ loss of status and lack of resources in a new country. Confident, rich and wide-ranging, AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART is an important story told by a bold new writer.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 20, 2018

America Is Not the Heart
by Elaine Castillo

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Viking
  • ISBN-10: 073522241X
  • ISBN-13: 9780735222410