The backstory: The Book of Unknown Americans was a 2014 New York Times Notable book. Update: it was also a finalist for the 2015 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
The basics: Centered on the stories of the Rivera family, who move from Mexico to Delaware at the beginning of this novel, and the Toro family, who emigrated from Panama many years ago, The Book of Unknown Americans focuses on the budding romance between Maribel Rivera and Mayor Toro, while also providing a backdrop to show the varied Latin American immigrant tales in their Delaware neighborhood.
My thoughts: I love the idea of this novel, and I was fascinated to hear about the large Latin American population in Delaware (and why it exists.) Henriquez grew up in Delaware, and her insight into the neighborhood was obvious. I appreciated the variety of viewpoints, but I soon found myself wishing for more even variety, while Henriquez opted to focus on a teenage love story that felt like it belonged in a separate book.
In many ways, reading this book felt like a roller coaster of emotion and affection. Initially, I loved this novel and was eager to spend time getting to know its characters. There are so many interesting backstories here. As the novel wore on, and the romance between Maribel and Mayor took center stage, I found myself questioning Henriquez's choices more than enjoying the story itself. Part of my issue is that Maribel never narrates her own story. The two primary narrators are her mother, Alma, and Mayor. I found Mayor's sections fascinating, but Alma quickly got on my nerves.
The third act of this novel, however, turned it around again for me, and I quite liked it. I still found the youthful romance to be over-emphasized in this book, but Henriquez redeemed the novel for me in the end.
The verdict: There is a lot I will remember about this novel, even as I had issues with it. Henriquez uses these characters to tell about the varied experiences of Latin American immigrants in Delaware. Unfortunately, I found the main storyline of Maribel and Mayor's romance rather dull and more indicative of young adult fiction. Instead, I wanted to know more about the other cast of characters, whose stories struck me as much more interesting.
Audio thoughts: Initially I loved this audio production, as the variety of narrators really helped me keep the different characters straight. The distinction between Alma's narration and Mayor's beautifully showed the difference in accent between generations. As the book moved on, however, I found myself incredibly annoyed with Alma's narration. It. Was. Just. So. Dramatic. I can't say if the character came across the same way in print, or if it was that narrator's choices, but I increasingly found myself rolling my eyes at her scenes. Mayor's narration, however, was excellent.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 9 hours 12 minutes (305 pages)
Publication date: June 3, 2014
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