Intense. Riveting. Heartbreaking.
Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans had me feeling nearly every emotion under the sun — especially as this tale of devotion and hope unraveled and left me with an ache in my stomach, a painful desire to undo what was done. To go back in time, helping to repair it — bit by bit, blow by blow.
Following the lives of several immigrant families, Henriquez’s tale focuses on the Toros and Riveras who rent apartments from the same Delaware complex. Mayor Toro falls in love with Maribel, a fellow teen, nearly at first glance — but can tell the Riveras harbor secrets. Everyone who comes to America is searching for something, reaching for something, but for this family? It’s something more. It’s a running-away, too.
As the Toros attempt to help acclimate Alma, Arturo and Maribel, tense relations with neighbors strain further. Mayor wants nothing more than to swoop in and protect Maribel, erasing all the pain etched on her face, but some forces are beyond their control.
It’s been a while since I sank into some good literary fiction. Honestly, with the chaos of the last year or so, I’ve favored neutral works or memoirs that may not demand as much from me as a reader. But it’s not fair to categorize The Book of Unknown Americans as a “tough read” — because in Henriquez’s hands, the tale digests so easily.
It’s impossible not to feel for Alma and Arturo, Maribel’s parents; as they flee their old life in Mexico, wanting to help and protect their injured daughter, they must abandon everything they know that is safe and familiar. The early moments the Riveras share at their dingy, anonymous apartment were heartbreaking. It’s impossible for me to imagine what it must be like, leaving behind a home filled with everything you love, everything you’ve built. And to come to a new country and community that may be hostile toward you — called an “outsider,” a foreigner, or worse — is gut-wrenching.
But Alma and Arturo are tenacious. They care. They try. Desperately wanting Maribel’s condition to improve, they tolerate the time she spends with Mayor and encourage her to form new relationships. Mayor was an interesting character in that he shares some of the Riveras’ experiences, but his own life in America is different. I didn’t bond with him the way I did with the Riveras, but I certainly felt with and for him throughout the novel.
Peppered between the unfolding saga of the two families are the stories of many more men and women, also immigrants who have arrived in the United States for one reason or another — and their personal narrations, sometimes only a few pages long, break up the ongoing narrative. I loved these glimpses into the lives of neighbors, coworkers and new friends. I recognized how responsible they felt for each other — even though they may have all arrived in the country as strangers. They’re Americans now.
This isn’t a love story, but it is a love story. From the blush of early love between Mayor and Maribel to the many sacrifices parents make for their children, the novel is a testimony to devotion and wanting more.
Though the subject matter is often difficult, the pay-off is so great. Henriquez spins a powerful tale filled with memorable characters, heartbreaking narratives and incredible depth. By the time I finished The Book of Unknown Americans, I felt nearly breathless; it was so intense, so moving, that I felt I’d barely come up for air. Highly recommend.
4.5 out of 5