Monday, August 3, 2015

Make Your Home Among Strangers

Title:  Make Your Home Among Strangers
Author:  Jennine Capó Crucet
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2015. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1250059666 / 978-1250059666

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Canals zigzag across the city I used to call home."

Favorite Quote:  "I was wrong to believe the stories we'd been told about ourselves."

Lizet is from a family of Cuban immigrants. She is the first in her family to go to college. She is obviously a bright girl. She graduates high school, and in her senior year, navigates the college admission process and the financial aid process successfully all on her own. She is admitted to an exclusive college in the Northeast. Not an easy feat.

The book begins once Lizet has already started college. The jump from Little Havana to a small liberal arts college in the Northeast is a big one for Lizet. The pull of these seemingly opposite directions is at the heart of Lizet's struggle. A premise for a strong character and an emotional story.

Unfortunately, I spend the remainder of the book looking for a glimpse of that determined, intelligent young woman that the book sets up. It's difficult to find. I find myself frustrated with many of Lizet's comments and choices. Her views on her own family and those around her seem to fulfill all the stereotypes rather than dispel them - from her sister who is a young, unwed mother to the rich debutante types at college. She figures out admissions and financial aid but cannot seek academic help at school, struggling and almost failing. She seems to look down on her background but runs back to it. Overall, unfortunately, she becomes an unlikable character.

A key sub-plot of the book is about Ariel Hernandez, a young boy whose case mirrors the actual history of Eli án González. That actual case occurred in 2000. Elián González's mother attempted to flee Cuba with her son. She died en route. Elián was placed with maternal relatives in Miami. A court battle ensued as his father demanded his return to Cuba. Ultimately, parents rights won, and Elián was returned to his father.

In the story, the case impacts Lizet in a myriad of ways. Her mother gets passionately involved in the fight to keep Ariel here. It becomes a source of consternation and embarrassment for Lizet. In addition, everyone at college asks and expects Lizet to be invested in the case for she is "the Cuban girl" - probably the only Cuban they know. Again, Lizet hides, she runs, and she feels sorry for herself - all of which gets rather annoying.

This is just not the book for me. My path too is an immigrant experience, and all of us are familiar with the experience of forging our own paths as unique and different from those of our parents. Those experiences are the basis of this book. I was hoping for insight and emotions as were found in The Book of Unknown Americans. Yet, this book incites none of the same reactions; I find myself completely unable to relate to the characters in this book.

What I have learned about cultural background is that you either have to own it or spend your life running from it. Yet, however, far you run, it is still and will always be a part of what defines you. So, choose to own it. Be proud of who you are. If you are the first one of "those" someone meets, let it be a great first one of "those." Prejudices exists as does a lack of knowledge and understanding. Be confident in who you are and with that, show people that "those people" really are not so different. Our similarities far outweigh our differences. The "strangers" are more alike than different.

That perhaps is the major reason this book does not work for me. I don't think Lizet ever gets to that point, and that is a shame.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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