Today we have two stand-out novels involving race and immigration that are told from multiple points of view. Both involve the weight of parental expectations.
Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng‘s debut novel, and our starred review joins other stars from LJ, Booklist and PW. This is a dysfunctional family story in which the struggles and insecurities of the parents (a Caucasian mother and a Chinese American father) are visited on the children, most dramatically their favored middle daughter. The author does a particularly good job of writing about the way a teenager can have completely different concerns than her parents–or siblings–realize.
Shelf Awareness offers a full Maximum Shelf issue on the novel, which includes an interview with the author. Everything I Never Told You is on many of the Best Summer Books lists out now, some which are listed on Ng’s website’s “News” page.
The Book of Unknown Americans finds itself on many of those same Summer Best lists, and focuses on the plight of recent immigrant families in the United States. Cristina Henríquez centers her novel on the romance between two teenagers, a Mexican girl and a Panamanian boy. But it is also full of the voices of their neighbors, immigrants from several Latin American countries who all live in the same apartment complex in Newark, Delaware and express themselves in a chorus of short first-person chapters.
* NG, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. 304p. Penguin Pr. Jun. 2014. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781594205712.
Lydia is dead. So starts this compelling tearjerker that is a mystery buried inside a painful family drama. Set in 1970s Ohio, readers experience first-hand the racism felt by Asian Americans and mixed-race families, as well as the sexism and bourgeoning women’s movement of the time through the alternating narratives of members of this dysfunctional family. Mom and Dad are trying to live vicariously through their teen middle child, Lydia. She is pressured to pursue a medical career, and to fit in socially; both things that were lacking in the mother and father’s lives respectively. The older brother, who is just on his way to Harvard, and the younger sister are relegated to non-favored status by the parents, and we watch the effects of that dynamic and others as this family struggles with secrets, guilt, and the pain of mourning and not knowing the truth. Readers will find themselves mentally screaming at and crying for these characters, turning page after page, and hoping for solace and answers in this narrative. Not until the very end will they find out the truth about what caused Lydia’s demise, and gain some understanding of the motives for the torturous actions of the protagonists. The somewhat hopeful ending seems a bit forced, but teen girls especially will flock to this book. Hand this one to fans of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (Little, Brown, 2002), and tell them to read it with a box of tissues close at hand.—Jake Pettit, American School Foundation, Mexico City
HENRÍQUEZ, Cristina. The Book of Unknown Americans. 304p. Knopf. June 2014. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780385350846; ebk. ISBN 9780385350853.
Alma and Arturo leave their family and friends in Mexico to bring their brain-damaged daughter, Maribel, to the United States in search of better schools. They settle in Newark, Delaware, near other émigrés from Central and South America. As the narrative unfolds through the words and thoughts of the main characters, readers come to know them well. A sweet friendship and then a budding romance develop between Maribel and Mayor, the younger son of a Panamanian family. Both families eventually oppose the romance and, without spoiling the story, it does not come to a good end. There is richness to the details of thought and action that the author uses to develop each character. The everyday struggles that often overwhelm families trying to make ends meet on minimum-wage salaries in a culture where they do not speak the language and where the indigenous people often lack a basic understanding of their intentions are vividly portrayed. Henríquez offers a powerful story revolving around universal coming-of-age themes to which teens in any culture can relate. She also makes some fictional “unknown Americans” very real.–Vicki Emery, Lake Braddock Secondary School, Fairfax County, VA