The Book of Unknown AmericansThe Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Hendriquez
Published by Knopf

From the publisher:

After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling at Redwood Apartments, a two-story cinderblock complex just off a highway in Delaware, they discover that Maribel’s recovery-the piece of the American Dream on which they’ve pinned all their hopes-will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with language, racial, and cultural obstacles. At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamà fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she’s sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America. Peopled with deeply sympathetic characters, this poignant yet unsentimental tale of young love tells a riveting story of unflinching honesty and humanity that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be an American. An instant classic is born.

I loved The World in Half, the first novel by Henriquez, so it was a no-brainer that I’d pick up The Book of Unknown Americans eventually. I found everything I was hoping for in this book: a unique perspective, memorable characters, great writing, and a truly emotional story that brought me to tears. It’s really a beautiful novel in a lot of ways.

I need to read more fiction about different cultures because I always, always love the fresh perspective and a look into a life different from my own. That was certainly the case with this novel – I loved getting inside the Riveras’ home and lives and understanding what the United States would be like (terrifying) for someone brand new to this country who doesn’t speak the language. I can’t even imagine the heartbreak and fear that would  come from sending your child to a school at which you can’t communicate with his/her teachers, administrators, or even the bus driver. Henriquez did such an incredible job getting the immigrant experience across to the reader and I so appreciate her doing so.

Maribel is a sweet but incredibly innocent girl, and I loved seeing the relationship between she and Mayor develop – he truly was there for her and watched out for her and would have done absolutely anything to protect her. For me, though, Maribel’s mother, Alma, is the character that really shined in this novel. Her determination to provide the best for her child is palpable, you can feel her deep love for her child and husband and her desire to do whatever it takes for both of them. The United States is nothing like she’d hoped it would be, yet she continues every single day to persevere and make the best of things, despite terribly difficult odds and circumstances.

The book is heartbreaking in the best and worst ways. As a reader you want the best for this family, but you can’t help but realize that goal is near impossible. The ending shattered me but at the same time, I was left with even more respect and hope for this family.

I really loved this book – it’s just so beautiful and tells a story that most of us need to read. Highly recommended.