St. Martin’s Press, Aug. 4, 2015.
As the first person in her family of Cuban immigrants to finish high school, Lizet expects her family to be thrilled when she is accepted to an Ivy League college in New York. However, Lizet’s parents and sister not only discourage her from going, but they take it as a personal betrayal that she is leaving them behind in Miami. In fact, her father uses what he sees as a dissolution of the family to justify selling their family home and leaving her mom and sister behind while he starts a new life of his own. At the same time, Lizet’s sister Leidy has dropped out of high school due to an unexpected pregnancy, which her family has no problem with because at least she is not trying to leave her roots behind.
With her family in disarray, Lizet stands by her decision to attend college. As the top of her class at Hialeah Lakes, an underfunded school in the outskirts of Miami, she expects to easily succeed at college. However, the standards at Rawlings are much more stringent, and she struggles to keep up with her grades. She is not even aware of the requirements until she is accused of plagiarism and labelled as a “minority student” who doesn’t know any better.
Meanwhile, Lizet’s mother is becoming deeply involved in the plight of a more recent young immigrant named Ariel Hernandez. Travelling by raft from Cuba, Ariel lost his mother along the way in a story that mirrors the real life journey of Elian Gonzalez. Ariel’s mother sacrificed herself to bring her son to America where he would have access to freedoms we take for granted, such as education. Lizet’s mother supports this decision completely, yet the irony is that she does not understand her own daughter’s quest for education. The stories of Ariel and Lizet run parallel through this novel, as we see the immigrant experience from the perspective of a Cuban “fresh off the boat” versus the equally frustrating challenges of a Cuban-American who grew up in the states but is not fully accepted into either culture.
This question of identity comes up over and over again for Lizet. At college, her roommate never forgets to introduce Lizet as a Cuban. In contrast, her own father tells Lizet that she is an American, not a Cuban, making her an outsider in both worlds. It opens up questions about what it means to be American (or Canadian) today, when the roots of many cultures have grown here together.
Because Lizet is still discovering who she is, she finds herself fictionalizing her past for her peers at college, and playing a role as the girl she used to be when she returns to visit Miami. With any sign of ambition or success, Lizet’s sister tells her she is becoming a “white girl.” In contrast, Lizet’s mother has rewritten her own story, dramatizing her arrival as a Cuban immigrant to include more shocking elements. Depending on who is listening, both Lizet’s and her mother’s stories change, shifting their own self-identity.
Lizet is forced to justify her place in college as well as her place at home in Miami. The novel touches on a lot of issues regarding the transition between high school and post-secondary education, such as the socio-economic differences between different students who are suddenly thrown together and expected to produce work of the same standards. This cultural gap causes many problems for Lizet as she attempts to interact with other students in the ways she knows how to. Her relationships with her peers are frustrating yet realistic because they are not tied up neatly at the end. The romance aspect is not emphasized, and Lizet concludes at the end of the novel that she will do what she loves first, and find love later, if at all. The framework of the novel is such that we start out knowing that Lizet will succeed in her chosen career path, and that makes her journey there a little bit easier to read.
The dialogue between Lizet and those around her was realistic and intriguing, while the descriptive scenes made me feel like I was right there with her. Overall, the plot could have been tightened up in some areas, as certain issues dragged on without resolution. However, all in all, I would highly recommend this novel, which leaves us asking, who are the real strangers with whom we make our home?
I received this book for free from St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.