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September 2017: The Book of Unknown Americans (Henriquez)

posted Oct 6, 2017, 9:00 AM by Sherrill Lavagnino

Our last meeting was on September 14th at the home of Kathryn Kasch in Berkeley.  We discussed the novel The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez.  This book was the  “Smith Reads” selection for this year’s incoming students, and we could see why it was chosen.  The novel focuses on the stories of two immigrant families who are drawn together, and ultimately driven apart, by the relationship between their teenage children.  However, as this central story slowly unfolds, a number of chapters are devoted to the voices of other residents of apartment building where the families reside.  Each resident relates his or her own journey to the United States and describes how he or she has built a life here.  Most have come to the country legally, some have not.  All have both good and bad experiences to share.   We supposed that this diversity of perspectives was what drew the administrators at Smith to this book.   Even though it is not overtly political (and perhaps because of that very reason), it can inspire interesting discussions about the status of immigrants in the United States.  It highlights some of the myriad reasons why people might want to come to this country and shows what they can contribute once here.  It also depicts the challenges that immigrants face, as well as portraying instances of both acceptance and rejection on the part of those who are already here.


I think the group had mixed feelings about the central story in the novel.  The tale of a boy and a girl who pursue their love against their parents’ wishes seemed a little too predictable, perhaps.  However, the characters were depicted reasonably fully, and it was easy to empathize with most of the people involved, which indicates the story was portrayed with a satisfactory level of complexity and nuance.  Many of us confessed that we were surprised by the ending, so this “boy meets girl story” wasn’t completely formulaic. 


There were also details about the families that we found particularly interesting.  For example, one family, the Riveras, came to the United States to seek medical attention for their daughter Maribel, who suffered a traumatic brain injury.   They come here legally, though that status is threatened when the husband loses his job.   The author portrays well the tough choices the parents make and the risks they endure in the hope that their daughter will continue to improve.   The reader also endeavors to understand Maribel’s perspective as she struggles to recover her sense of self while at the same time being separated from almost everything and everyone that she knew before the accident.  She is one of the few characters who is not given a chapter of her own to narrate, so it is hard to be sure what she is experiencing. Still, it is understandable that she is drawn to the neighbor boy, Mayor Toro, who is the only person who treats her as a normal teenager and not as a damaged being.   However, while we sympathized with the teens’ connection, as one of our members pointed out, Maribel’s condition raised concerns about her ability to consent to Mayor’s advances.  I suspect the depth of our discussion of such details indicated the degree to which we all got caught up in the story.   Hopefully, we will be similarly intrigued by stories of the characters in our next novel, a tale of eight generations of a single family:  Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

Karen B