The Book of Unknown AmericansThe Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5. The Book of Unknown Americans is a hidden gem that I happened to pick up (as an audio book) before a long drive. It is a moving and touching story about the budding romance between Maribel Rivera, who suffered brain damage in Mexico following an accident, and Mayor Toro, a shy teenage boy who is able to see through Maribel's limitations, and even her physical allure, to the beautiful soul within. The story is told against the backdrop of a group of immigrants living in an apartment building in Delaware. The central characters are the Riveras—Arturo, Alma and Maribel—who have recently immigrated from Mexico, and the more "established" Toros—Mayor and his parents, Cecilia and Rafael—who immigrated from Panama years earlier to escape that country's violence.

The Book of Unknown Americans has a valuable place in our current national debate over immigration. At its core, it shows that immigrants—legal and illegal both—are simply human beings with human stories and problems and challenges; people who crave—and deserve—a chance at a better life and should not be condemned for pursuing better circumstances; and, for all that they might gain, immigrants pay a high price for uprooting their lives and attempting to set down roots in the U.S.

The Riveras' story is gripping and heartbreaking. Alma is the voice of this family, and she tells her tale with uncensored emotion. I was pleasantly startled by the appearance, for the first time, of Arturo in the very last chapter, when for whatever reason, we do not hear from him directly before that. Through his wife's eyes, we learn he is a good man and is an endearing character (whereas Cecilia's husband, Rafael, is not) despite the strains in their marriage and his human frailties. Nevertheless, introducing Arturo's voice at that late stage, given what had happened to him previously, was a bold if confusing creative move.

I would give this book five stars but for the extraneous characters (e.g., the building owner; the busybody neighbor "Quisqueya", who is supposed to be Puerto Rican but whose name refers to the island of Hispaniola and the Dominican Republic in particular). For me, they detracted from the plot's momentum and also injected a flippant quality to an otherwise somber tale. Perhaps that was the author's intent.

Despite some quibbles, I think The Book of Unknown Americans is a notable work that merits a thoughtful read.

View all my reviews