Jennine Capó Crucet’s superb first novel opens with Hialeah-born-and-bred Lizet musing on the items her parents have tossed into the city’s canals:
“My dad: every single drop of motor oil ever drained from any of the dozen or so cars he’s owned and sold over the years; a stack of loose CDs I once left on the couch and forgot. ... an entire transmission. My mom: a dead hamster, cage and all. ... any obvious junk mail, before I knew to grab the brochures from colleges out of her hand. ... dried-out watercolors, homemade tape recordings of her own voice, parched hunks of white clay — any and all signs of an attempt to discover some untapped talent she hoped she possessed wound up in the water.”
That Crucet is funny comes as no surprise to anyone who read her 2009 collection How to Leave Hialeah. Consider the story Resurrection, or: The Story Behind the Failure of the 2003 Radio Salsa 98.1 Semi-Annual Cuban and/or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival, in which a radio station intern aims to bring Celia Cruz back to life.
But the heartfelt Make Your Home Among Strangers focuses on a different, more personal sort of debris than the mess floating in those canals (though water will remain an important thematic element). Crucet is examining the emotional detritus of growing up and away from your family and confronting an identity you have always taken for granted.
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A Hialeah-Miami Lakes graduate and the daughter of Cuban exiles, Lizet has been struggling through her first months at (fictional) Rawlings College, an exclusive liberal arts school in New York. She has been accused of plagiarism, and, uncertain of her future, decides to head home for Thanksgiving despite the expense and the fact that “I was home for a holiday we didn’t really celebrate.”
But familiar Miami isn’t much comfort. It’s not even that familiar. Her father, who left her mother when Lizet announced she was going away to school, has sold the family’s home and moved in with a roommate. Her mother and sister Leidy, a single mom, are crammed into a small apartment in Little Havana with Leidy’s baby. And on the news, a Cuban boy named Ariel Hernandez — think Elián González — has been rescued from the waves after his mother drowned trying to reach America on a raft.
As Lizet’s mother becomes embroiled in Ariel’s dramatic saga, she leaves Lizet resentful and confused — and even less sure of her place in the world.
Using the Elián González story as a backdrop to Lizet’s painful metamorphoses is a terrific idea, and Crucet expertly summons the wrenching disconnect between immigrant parents and their offspring, often the first in the family to attend college. Growing up in Hialeah and leaving there for the high-pressure environment of Cornell University provided her with the understanding to deliver an on-target and unforgettable dissection of cultural disorientation that rings true on a universal level.
Witness Lizet’s interactions with her hometown boyfriend Omar, who offers her a “someday” ring — meaning that they’ll be apart while Lizet is in school, but together someday. He has no idea this will never happen, but Lizet is beginning to glimpse the truth, and for an answer sweeps him into a quick, almost violent sexual embrace. Is that a yes? he jokes afterward. No, Omar. It’s not.
Crucet is equally devastating in her portrayal of the alienation the children of immigrants can suffer when they try to walk in two worlds. The privileged students at Rawlings ask Lizet where she’s from; when she replies, “Miami,” they say, “No, where are you from from.” Meanwhile, her sister sneers, “Quit talking like a white girl.” A well-meaning professor doesn’t understand why Lizet says she can’t take a summer internship because she needs to be home to support her family. (“What will you be doing down there?”) The administrators drop the plagiarism charge by deciding that Lizet as a minority student doesn’t know any better, an insult disguised in the trappings of a favor.
Must we do what our families expect us to do? Where does our responsibility end? As Ariel’s story winds to its pulverizing and inevitable close, Lizet fumbles toward the truth. “I was wrong to believe the stories we’d been told about ourselves,” she realizes finally. With this personal coming-of-age novel, Crucet offers us a piercing window into what it means to grow up.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.
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