A family of three leaves everything behind in Mexico to move to the United States. Arturo and Alma Rivera’s teenage daughter, Maribel, was in an accident that resulted in brain trauma; she will be attending a high school in Newark, Delaware equipped for her special needs. Her parents, once loving and close to one another, are now dealing with a strain in their relationship. On top of struggling to meet their daughter’s new needs, they are now at a loss. Everything about their new home — from the language to the weather to the food — is foreign to them.
The Riveras eventually find their own little niche in the community. While her daughter is at school and her husband is at work picking mushrooms in nearby Pennsylvania, Maribel’s mother becomes good friends with a Panamanian neighbor and begins taking English classes as at a local immigrant center. She’s still terribly anxious about keeping her daughter safe — not unfounded, considering an early scene in the book — but some of her unease is beginning to fade.
Enter Mayor Toro, the neighbor’s shy teenage son. He’s attracted to Maribel as soon as he sees her, though it’s hard to get close with Alma Rivera watching her daughter like a hawk. Even when he learns about Maribel’s disabilities, he’s intrigued by her: she often stares blankly at him, but the two obviously enjoy each other’s company and a friendship starts to blossom. Not quite trusting strangers around their disabled teenage daughter, the Riveras lay down rules; teenagers being teenagers, Mayor and Maribel start finding ways to sneak around those rules. It’s innocent teen infatuation, but some of their choices lead to disastrous consequences.
It’s obvious why the Riveras moved to the United States: they want to help their daughter. What makes this book a little different is that it includes immigrant narratives that aren’t directly related to the overall plot. The Book of Unknown Americans, Henríquez’s second novel, not only follows the Rivera family’s story, but weaves in vignettes of other people living in their modest apartment complex. The residents, many of whom are Latin@ immigrants themselves, come from places like Guatemala, Panama, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. Though the book mostly focuses on the lives and histories of the Rivera and Toro families, readers also get glimpses of some of the other unknown Americans that make up the Latin@ immigrant community. Readers are privy to the victories, regrets, and jealousies that are housed within the apartment complex.
These other perspectives add a lovely dimension to the book, but there was one glaring omission I couldn’t get past: Maribel’s narrative is conspicuously absent. I’d like to write this off as the nature of her brain injury: she does often just stare blankly at people or is slow to grasp spoken communication. Once she’s attended school for a while and has presumably had therapy, she starts to communicate a lot more easily. With so much of the story revolving around her, why was her narrative omitted? She exists only through other people’s discussions of her, and it’s a shame because she obviously has her own thoughts and desires and expresses her displeasure to Mayor that everyone dismisses those thoughts. She just processes everything differently.
Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy the book. Maribel’s first-person omission, however, proved the line between me enjoying it and me looooooving it.
The Book of Unknown Americans was published in June 2014 by Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday.