Book chat: ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez

Book of Unknown AmericansIntense. 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

Pub: June 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Advance copy provided by publisher for review consideration

Book review: ‘Short Girls’ by Bich Minh Nguyen

For immigration lawyer Van, life takes a spin after her husband announces unceremoniously, “I don’t want to live with you anymore.” She’s spent a long time feeling settled, comfortable and, in her words, “chosen” by Miles Oh, a successful, charismatic and handsome Asian-American who exudes a confidence and poise that Van herself has never felt. Losing him, as she does on page one, is like losing a limb.

Off in Chicago, Van’s younger sister Linny Luong has troubles of her own — namely the clandestine affair she’s conducting with Gary, a paunchy married man, and the unfulfilling job she holds at You Did It Dinners, a firm that requires her to cook copious amounts of food for other people’s families. At 27 and without a college degree, Linny struggles to find a purpose: something that would pull her up from the muck and introduce her to new experiences, a new life.

Though close in age and raised in the same household, Van and Linny remain estranged as adults — tied only to their aging father, a man caught up in his inventions for short people. Dinh and Thuy Luong arrived from Vietnam in the 1970s, settling in Michigan and raising their daughters to believe they’d have to work hard to excel in America — a land of opportunity . . . and very tall people. All small of stature, the Luongs had to set themselves apart to avoid being overlooked in a land where everyone literally towered over them. While the girls’ mother retreated into herself, staying invisible as a seamstress, Dinh worked on his projects — including the Luong Arm, designed to help short people reach items on tall shelves.

Dinh has only become more obsessed with his work since his wife’s death nine years prior. Once just a hobby, the Luong Arm — and other products of Luong Inventions — have consumed all of their father’s attention. When the sisters are called back to Wrightville, Mich., for their father’s naturalization ceremony, they must finally confront the feelings they have for one another — and their strained upbringing — all while dealing with their own crumbling relationships.

Bich Minh Nguyen’s Short Girls is an interesting, perceptive look at life for the daughters of two immigrants. While Linny bucked against their traditional Vietnamese upbringing, wearing colorful clothing, making many friends and acting “like a white girl,” Van folded in on herself — studying constantly; applying to law school; blending in as best she could in small-town Michigan. The juxtaposition of the two girls was fascinating, and I loved that neither was a complete cliche.

Though I enjoyed the characters and the fact that most defied stereotypes, the novel’s strength lies in the way it conveys the immigrant experience — both for the Luongs, who arrived decades before, and present-day immigrants in a post-9/11 world. As an immigration lawyer, Van works tirelessly as an advocate for the frightened people who arrived in the U.S. without friends or family, looking timidly at locals who bark at them to “speak English.” I’ve always considered myself an open-minded and tolerant person, and reading about the way some of Van’s clients had been treated was painful. I can only imagine how terrifying it would be to be dropped in a foreign country with only a dream of a better life — and no idea how to actually make it happen.

The relationship between Van and Linny is at the heart of the story, though the book is very much about their parents’ marriage, too. There’s no sugar-coating the fact that Dinh is not a pathetic, old widower; though he once loved his wife, they occupied separate parts of the same home prior to her death. Van comments that her mother often used her girls as a shield or a bartering chip, pulling them further away from their reticent father — a man who, they’re forced to admit, they barely know. They don’t have conversations; they don’t know his thoughts. Arriving home on the occasion of their father’s citizenship, Van and Linny feel like strangers.

Short Girls is not an action-packed or fluid story. A better part of this quiet novel deals with the breakdown of Van’s marriage to a man she, too, barely knew. Every character in Nguyen’s novel seems to be kept at arm’s distance — from one another; from themselves. No one is held close. Everyone is a stranger.

But somehow, it still worked for me. My heart caught as Van came to grips with her impending divorce; I wanted to reach out and help Linny in the kitchen, where she worked to prepare traditional Vietnamese meals for her thankless father. Even Mr. Luong was somehow endearing, despite the fact that he withheld approval for his daughters. By the close of the book, I cared about these people. And though not much happens or is accomplished in Short Girls, that’s still what I ask for in a book.

Fans of literary fiction who enjoy stories on family dynamics, sisters or the immigrant experience might enjoy this one. Though it didn’t move me to tears or provoke any action on my part, I enjoyed Van and Linny’s story — and the positive, uplifting note on which the book closes.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0670020818 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy obtained from BookMooch

Book review: ‘Lost’ by Jacqueline Davies

For 16-year-old Essie Rosenfeld, life in New York City revolves around a slowly-moving spiral of home, caring for her young sister and working tirelessly at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where she earns just enough money to help support her family — and still have a few coins leftover for her true passion: hat-making.

It’s 1911 and the Rosenfelds, still grieving the loss of Essie’s father, are struggling to stay afloat. Essie’s mother has deteoriated into a shell of a woman, leaving her eldest daughter to care for Zelda, the baby she was carrying when her husband died. Exhausted and bitter, Mrs. Rosenfeld pushes her duties onto her eldest — who fights, also, to keep her younger brother in line.

It’s in the midst of this push-and-pull chaos that Essie meets Harriet, a young woman who arrives at the factory looking as out-of-place as a diamond on the factory floor. Essie is told to teach Harriet what she knows about the construction of shirtwaists — and Harriet, scared but desperate for employment, does her best to keep up. As their friendship grows, Harriet and Essie begin to lift one another from the frightened malaise that has taken over their lives — and maybe, possibly, give them the strength to move forward. Until the unimaginable happens.

Jacqueline Davies’ Lost is everything I just described, but it’s so, so much more than that, too. We can sit and classify the novel in a variety of ways — historical fiction; young adult — but nothing can truly come close to what actually happens here. I started the book at 8 p.m. on a weeknight, intending to just read until I got drowsy, and put it back down at 2 a.m. when I knew full well I’d have to be up in four hours. I read it straight through — without pause. And if I had it to read all over again, I’d probably do the same.

As readers, we understand from the get-go that Essie has recently endured some sort of trauma — and that her home life isn’t exactly as she’s describing. We know, basically, that there has been a death in the family . . . just as we know that Essie is unwilling, or unable, to recognize it. When Harriet arrives on the scene, Essie is struggling to piece together her memory from recent weeks — and to begin to understand what has happened to her.

More than anything, the novel felt like an exploration of grief . . . and as such, you’d expect it to be depressing, plodding and painful. But Davies writes with a light hand, showing us shades of Essie and revealing facts over time — never letting us get muddled down in the shadowy details. Each character became so real to me, vivid and beyond description — and even those I wanted to dislike, like Essie’s mother, were sympathetic figures. While Zelda was wild and “spoiled,” I couldn’t help but fall in love with her, too — especially since Essie clearly loved her beyond reproach. The love that Mrs. Rosenfeld couldn’t provide fell to Essie to give, and she had it in spades.

The juxtaposition between the boring, dull work Essie performed in the factory and the whimsical, imaginative and fun of her hat-making was interesting, too, and was the perfect way to showcase how talented Essie was — though her life in New York kept her mired in anything but creative pursuits. It was impossible not to want a hat from Essie — the devoted sister, the dutiful daughter. And, as in Harriet’s case, the loyal friend.

As a modern woman, factory life is impossible for me to imagine: the incredibly long hours in a hot, dirty factory, often without breaks; the painful, time-consuming work; the terrible lighting conditions; sharing a work space with so many other tired, exhausted women, and for so little pay. I work in a comfortable, air-conditioned office, where I’m compensated well for my work. I have a college degree. I get a lunch break. And at the end of the day? Well, if I ever got tired of what I do — or felt like I was being treated unfairly — I could leave. Get a new job. Move.

For someone like Essie? Well, that was out of the question. And when Harriet comes onto the scene — Harriet, the enigma — you realize just how out of the question it was for her, too. Learning about Harriet throughout the course of the novel, including the own secrets she wore close to her heart, was fascinating.

In fact, that’s a good word for Lost: fascinating. Full of rich imagery and unforgettable passages. And though it’s hard for me to classify in a few simple words, I’d recommend it very highly to fans of historical fiction and young adult — or anyone looking for a heartbreaking story. Not a novel I’ll soon forget.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0761455353 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library

Lost was read in conjunction with Nerds Heart YA, a tournament showcasing under represented young adult literature. Check back tomorrow for my review of Julie Hearn’s Rowan The Strange, and then visit to find out which of the two novels will advance to the next round! My decision will be made with Nicole of Linus’s Blanket and posted tomorrow evening.