The BUZZ: Appeared on numerous “best books of 2014” lists, including NPR, Amazon’s Top Ten, NYT 100 Notable Books of 2014, and the Daily Beast Novel of the Year.
The GIST: The Rivera family has immigrated from Mexico to Delaware to seek help for their teenaged daughter, Mirabel, who has suffered a traumatic brain injury. The story opens with a ride through darkened city streets and their hasty drop off at a nondescript apartment complex. Driven by responsibility and love, they must create a life from a few trash bags of clothes and household goods and a mattress they find by the dumpster. This is their story, and that of those who live with them in their apartment complex, all legal immigrants from Central and South America. Like their neighbors, the Riveras struggle to find work, to buy food they recognize at the grocery store, to learn the language, and to communicate with the school their daughter attends. A friendship forms between the Riveras and their neighbors, the Toros; the budding relationship between young Mayor Toro and Mirabel is cause for elation for the teenagers and concern for their parents. As the story unfolds, guilt becomes a powerful and destructive force, and it leaves none of the characters unscathed.
The WRITING: Spare and straightforward. The book’s structure is a series of short stories, the tales of how each neighbor arrived in the United States and why. Henriquez keeps this format from becoming overly complex by telling each immigrant’s story in the first person narrative and weaving the Riveras’ story throughout. These characters are not philosophical, and there are no flowery sentences here. There is only action and reaction, choices made on the fly because of secrets unshared, wrong turns taken by well-meaning people. This is a book about survival, and the language is simple and clean.
BUY or BORROW?: Borrow. The novel provides profound insight into the lives of immigrants in the US, living legally in cities all over the country and doing jobs far beneath their training and abilities. It explores the motives behind leaving one’s country, the longing for home, the sacrifices we make for family, and the paradox of fiercely loving a new world that can be harsh and unfair.
We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?