books and reading · reviews

Book Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

The Riveras have arrived in Delaware after emigrating from Mexico.  Hoping to get their daughter Maribel the special education she needs after an accident in their home country, the family struggles to make ends meet in a rundown apartment complex brimming with other immigrants.  It is there that the Riveras meet the Toro family and forge a deep friendship.  The Toro’s son Mayor and Maribel forge a friendship and a tentative relationship is born.  But the impact of their newfound feelings has greater ramifications than they first realized.

Cristina Henriquez’s latest book offers an unbelievably fresh take on the immigrant experience in America.  Told in alternating perspectives, including those of Maribel’s parents as well as brief vignettes with other residents of the apartment complex, Henriquez gives readers authentic insight into living in America after coming from somewhere else.  The interspersed stories of other immigration stories provide a beautiful (fictionalized) oral history of sorts, and they are full of real moments and truths.

Also interesting to note is how Mayor and Maribel’s budding relationship mirrors untrue beliefs about immigrants in America.  Because Maribel suffers from a TBI, people believe her to be dumber than she is, and many misconstrue Mayor’s interest in her as something much more dangerous than it is.  The truth is seen when the two are together: Mayor is drawn to Maribel’s insight, sweetness, and life.  It’s a sweet and tragic little love story, and holds immense appeal for teens and adults alike.

Henriquez writes prose that offers profound ruminations on coming to a strange place.  Readers will be compelled by the stories of these vivid characters as they navigate a world in which they don’t speak the language and many of the customs are foreign to them.  The novel is full of moments that hold the beauty and richness of life and family in them.  It’s a moving experience, and though the end veers toward the overly-dramatic, it still packs an emotional punch.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez.  Knopf: 2014. Library copy.

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