Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review: The Book of Unknown Americans

Summary: A boy and a girl who fall in love. Two families whose hopes collide with destiny. An extraordinary novel that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be American.

Arturo and Alma Rivera have lived their whole lives in Mexico. One day, their beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, sustains a terrible injury, one that casts doubt on whether she’ll ever be the same. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better.

When Mayor Toro, whose family is from Panama, sees Maribel in a Dollar Tree store, it is love at first sight. It’s also the beginning of a friendship between the Rivera and Toro families, whose web of guilt and love and responsibility is at this novel’s core.

Woven into their stories are the testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Latin America. Their journeys and their voices will inspire you, surprise you, and break your heart.

Suspenseful, wry and immediate, rich in spirit and humanity, The Book of Unknown Americans is a work of rare force and originality. -- Knopf

Often times, I find myself procrastinating writing a review for a book because either I don't love it or I feel meh about it. The reviews are just too difficult to write and I move other books ahead in the queue. In the case of THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS by Cristina Henriquez, I actually haven't written the review because I'm intimidated by this novel. It was both moving and profound, and it actually blew me away like few books do.

THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS begins with Arturo and Alma Rivera and their 15 year old daughter Maribel. They have recently moved to Delaware from Mexico after Maribel was in a tragic accident that left her brain damaged. Arturo and Alma believed that America could provide hope and opportunities for their daughter that she couldn't get in Mexico.

Meanwhile, Mayor Toro, a teenage boy whose family is from Panama, sees Maribel one day and falls immediately in love with her. Their relationship is prone to rumors with people thinking that Maribel is simpler than she really is and that Toro's intentions are bad. Their families also develop a friendship, supporting each other in a new land that's very different from their homes.

I treasured each and every page of THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS, and I think it's a must-read for anyone who calls themselves an American. This novel managed to make me see immigrants and our country in an entirely new light, and I feel it's especially timely considering the debate going on about protecting our borders and undocumented immigration. I don't know if I can express how much this book moved me.

There are many reasons that THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS was such a powerful story to me. First and foremost were the characters. Ms. Henriquez managed to create some very real and memorable characters that deeply touched my heart. I loved so many of the characters in this novel, and I was able to see their desire for a better life -- something I definitely take for granted. I honestly couldn't stop thinking about a few of these individuals for some time after finishing this book.

The author not only told the story of the Riveras and the Toros through alternating chapters, but she also intermixed stories from their immigrant neighbors about their experiences in the United States. These stories further enhanced the novel for me because she brought the immigrant experience to life -- she made it all the more real to me.  I could see these individuals' hopes and struggles, and my heart broke over and over again for them.

While I find myself repeating how much THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS was an eye-opener for me, I do want to stress that this novel was preachy or "in your face" at all. There were some very important messages in the story; however, they were just part of the story and I felt as if I came to my own conclusions. I think that's a testament to Ms. Henriquez's writing style.

In fact, I really loved how Ms. Henriquez chose to tell these characters' stories. I especially enjoyed the story of the two families; however, I also found the snippets from their neighbors to be fascinating. Not only did these stories put real faces to the problem, but they also challenged readers to rethink their stereotypes about immigrants.

THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS is, without a doubt, an ideal book club selection. In fact, I would definitely consider this novel the next time it's my turn to pick. There is a reading guide available with seventeen (!) fantastic questions. Some of the themes you might choose to discuss include prejudices, bullying, second chances, love, friendships, fears, family, hopes and dreams.

I absolutely loved THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS. Highly recommended!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


bermudaonion said...

Wow! I just pulled this out and put it on my immediate TBR pile. I think this book would strike a chord with my book club.

Beth F said...

Ok. I need to check if I have a copy of this. Your review won me over.