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A new novel takes on the immigrant experience
Michael Lionstar

“Back then, all we wanted was the simplest things: to eat good food, to sleep at night, to smile, to laugh, to be well.”

So begins Cristina Henríquez’s ambitious and affecting new novel, The Book of Unknown Americans.

At the heart of the story are Arturo and Alma Rivera, who recently emigrated from Mexico to Delaware in search of better education for their mentally challenged teenaged daughter, Maribel. They move into an apartment complex populated by other Latin American immigrants and quickly befriend Celia and Rafael Toro, who came from Panama many years ago. The only complication is the Toros’ 15-year-old son, Mayor, who takes an unsettling shine to beautiful Maribel. Will he bring her out of her shell, the Riveras wonder? Or is he the harbinger of something far more sinister?

Part love story, part immigrant manifesto, Henríquez’s novel artfully weaves together narratives often relegated to the outskirts of society. (In punchy interchapters, she adopts the voices of other building residents--men and women who hail from Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua and Paraguay.)

But her most accomplished task is getting us to care so deeply for her characters. Their triumphs are your triumphs. Their losses break your heart.

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