The Book of Unknown Americans takes place in an old auto-body shop-turned apartment complex (I know, I can’t really picture it, either)—a home to several different Latino, immigrant families. Throughout the novel we hear from the perspectives of nearly all of the tenants of these Redwood Apartments over the course of seven months. Micho Alvarez is one of the neighbors in this complex. He is a beautifully self-aware photographer who says that these people are the “unknown Americans” because no one cares to befriend them. He asserts that natural born Americans feel that way about them either because they’re afraid or because they need someone to hate.
We didn’t intentionally pick such a hot-topic subject for this month’s book club but it does seem very appropriate considering all the discussions about immigration in the US these days. Either Latino immigration, the topic of refugees, or who should stay in the states and who should go—it’s on everyone’s mind and the tips of a lot of peoples’ tongues.
On Goodreads, I gave this book 4/5 stars. The things that are done well are done really well but there are just a few things that leave me feeling a little lost–mostly intentional choices that were made by the author. Because of that, I’m going to cut this review up into two sections What I Loved and What I Didn’t Love. I’ll tell you right now, the second section will likely contain light spoilers. Well, depending on your definition of spoilers. I won’t give away the surprise ending or anything. And there is a surprise ending. The last four chapters, I was glued to this book like never before. But I promise not to give that away at all.
What I Loved:
The book is formatted in such a way that each chapter is told from the perspective of a different resident of the Redwood Apartments. Now, this isn’t my very favorite format unless it’s done really well. And Henriquez does it very, very well. She captures the voice of each individual so distinctly. At first I was annoyed at the writer’s choice to do it—especially as new characters kept piling on—but I never really got confused like I thought I would.
I love the way that Henriquez smashed some basic stereotypes for us. The fact that all of the characters in this book entered into the United States completely legally was something that many of the characters took great pride in. The other thing that she pointed out was that not all Latino or Spanish speaking immigrants in this country are from Mexico! I felt like the author was making a strong point there just as an FYI to the reader: “hey—we’re not all Mexicans!” In fact, in the whole apartment complex, only a few tenants were from Mexico. The others were from places like Paraguay, Panama, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and other places. Not only did the main characters experience culture shock by moving to the US in general, but suddenly all of their new friends had different traditions and customs that were new, as well.
One of the great take aways for me was this subtle theme that ran throughout the book—the way that so many people feel so boxed in by what others think they are capable of—particularly those who are in some measure of authority. Either American society as a whole or in familial relationships–everyone comes at one another with some measure of expectations. Some of the characters very happily took to their new identity as “American Immigrant” and adhered to it quite well–taking on the character that American society placed on them. Some sank and found it too difficult. Others were determined to rise above. The children in the book have the added layer of not only being a stranger in a strange land but also teenagers with parents who think they know them completely and think they know what’s best for them. For Mayor—one of the teenage main characters, his parents seem to think that he should be doing things that he’s just not very good at by nature. For Maribel—she’s capable of so much more than her parents even comprehend. I’ll stop there before I give too much away. But it was something that lured me through the entire book.
Things I Didn’t Love:
Without giving anything away, I’ll tell you right now that even though I love a good plot-twist ending and even though I was hooked on those last four chapters like I mentioned, I was not happy with the way the author chose to end this book at all. Some people probably liked it a lot but I just… I was frustrated by it.
I wasn’t comfortable with Mayor and Maribel’s relationship. I thought their friendship was completely beautiful and profound and healing. But there were a few other things that happen that, given their ages and some particular vulnerabilities on her part, get into some murky waters regarding consent and stuff like that. Nothing graphic—I’m not offering a trigger warning or anything. But I just could not feel 100% great about certain parts of the story where I think I was supposed to feel a sense of excitement for them.
And here’s my biggest complaint. The thing I would most love to sit down and talk to Cristina Henriquez about because I know this was a choice that she made on purpose. And this is the part that MAY be a bit of a spoiler (I feel like I need to bust out my clapping hands emoji): We! Never! Hear! From! Maribel!
We hear from every single other person who lives in this apartment complex. Some people we only learn about from their chapter and then never ever see them ever again in the whole book. But we never hear a word from Maribel who is, arguably, the number one main character! This story wouldn’t even exist without her and she never gets a chance to speak for herself. And we know that she has things to say because she carries a notebook with her everywhere she goes and she writes things down constantly. At one point she gifts the notebook to Mayor and all I wanted to know was what was in that notebook. One page. Just one page! Like I said, I know this was an intentional choice that the author made but for the life of me I can’t figure out why. I probably could figure it out if I tried—in fact right here writing this I’m starting to come up with a few ideas (maybe because she’s an Unknown American, maybe to illustrate the point that we’ll never really know one another? Maybe to illustrate the way that she feels muted in her life?) but I think I just wanted to hear from her so badly that I just haven’t been able to get over it yet.
So what are we reading for September? It’s a non-fiction piece that I know a lot of you have either beat me to reading or are dying to get your hands on. I haven’t talked to a single person who feels “meh” about any of the work this author puts out…
In the first chapter of this book, Mindy says that her 20’s were about wanting people to like her but her 30’s are about wanting people to know her. And that’s how I know that this book and I are going to be great friends.
Staci, Steph, and I (and you if you want to join in!) will be back again on the last Wednesday of the month with our next Virtual Book Club installment!
If any of you have read The Book of Unknown Americans and have thoughts about why on earth the author chose to keep the main, most intriguing character of them all, silent to us, by all means, please share with me.
Hey! Have a great day. You look really cute, today.