By Anya Shukla
Numerical ratings are back by popular demand! And by “popular,” I mean that my mom nagged me until I put my ratings back in; apparently, they help her determine whether she should read my articles or not. Such is life.
I mean, it’s not like I have hordes of readers panting to determine a book’s worth based on my reviews… so I guess it’s fine to rate them. As a compromise, I’ll add a “my” before the “rating” header to emphasize that these ratings stem from my personal opinion.
Review: For most of their lives, Alma and Arturo Rivera lived comfortably in Mexico. But after an accident leaves their daughter Mirabel with brain damage, the Riveras move to America in hopes of providing her with a better special education program. They find friends in their new neighbors, who immigrated from Panama… and Mirabel finds a suitor in their neighbor’s son, Mayor.
Christina Henríquez’s “The Book of Unknown Americans” is told primarily through Alma and Mayor’s perspectives, a choice which ultimately lets the novel down. However, Henríquez does incorporate stories from other Latinx immigrants in their community. These chapters paint a holistic picture of diverse Latinx communities, counteracting persistent myths and providing the book with some redemption. My Rating: 3/5.
What I Loved: How Henríquez illustrates different immigrants from the Latin American community and their diverse reasons for coming to the United States. There’s obviously misinformation about Latinx immigration to America: that they only come from Mexico, that they’re all undocumented. Henríquez showcases Latinx immigrants from Mexico, yes, but also Panama, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Nicaragua. Her characters—the majority of whom arrived legally in America—came to the United States because of their career dreams, their families, unsafe conditions in their home countries. One wanted to be an actress like Rita Moreno, another’s mother married an American man, another wanted to escape the military warfare in Guatemala. No one has the same story.
Like Cornejo Villavicencio in “The Undocumented Americans” (BIPOC Book #3), Henríquez also explicitly asks why some undocumented immigrants would travel miles to America, “tied to the underside of a car or stuffed into the trunk like a rug” (pg. 412). Her answer: government corruption (often born out of American-led interventions in the late 1900s), fighting and instability in their home country, a wish to support one’s family. She clearly articulates all sides of Latinx immigration, helping readers see the issue from a multidimensional viewpoint.
What I Didn’t Love: The PLOT TWIST that I did NOT see coming. Henríquez does a great job of differentiating her characters through tone, style, and word choice. Yet despite their differences, Alma and Mayor have similar, innocent character “voices.” Maybe it’s because Alma is in denial about the extent of her daughter’s condition and Mayor is actually a child... nevertheless, because Alma’s and Mayor’s mild, gentle perspectives make up most of the novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans” feels tailor-made for a wholesome finale. Even when Arturo loses his job and the family’s in crisis because they might lose their visa, I’m just waiting for the happy ending. So when I got hit with a plot twist, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I blink and suddenly the la-la-lahing of the Riveras has morphed into the death of a character, the termination of the Mayor-Mirabel relationship, and the family’s return to Mexico. The twist’s set up and execution are great, but it all happens so fast, there’s no time for the characters—or the reader—to process any of their emotions.
Also… based on this novel’s back cover, I expected an epic Romeo-and-Juliet love story between Mirabel and Mayor. I got maybe half of a one-sided relationship. From what I can recall, Mirabel never expresses romantic interest in Mayor. Yet he continues kissing her, building up this fantasy of their connection in his head. Given the fact that Mirabel has brain damage, including short-term memory loss, this situation feels exploitative. I wish Henríquez had put more care into this portrayal of young “love.”
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “When someone dies, it doesn’t leave a hole, and that’s the agony” (pg. 475-476).
Up next: “Algorithms of Oppression” by Safiya Umoja Noble.