This book should be required reading for high school teachers and undergraduate advisors. Having taught high school myself, I understand quite well how wide the gulf has become in the US between the skills required to earn a diploma from a public high school and those demanded by most four-year colleges. It's why universities now find themselves having to offer more and more sections of remedial courses—many of the 18-year-olds arriving each fall don't have mastery of the basics. They may have graduated high school and met college admission requirements, but they aren't able to write an essay or read and comprehend complicated textbooks. And the task is even more difficult for students who are the first in their families to attend college, like Lizet, the main character in Make Your Home Among Strangers.
Born in Miami to Cuban parents, Lizet grew up attending public schools along with her older sister, Leidy. In her senior year of high school she decides to apply to Rawlings, an elite liberal arts school in New York, without her parents' knowledge. She is terrified of disappointing them and feels conflicted about abandoning what would surely be a comfortable, certain future with her boyfriend Omar, but something in Lizet, some spark of ambition, won't let her settle for the same life all her peers are set to live. She wants something more. So when her acceptance letter arrives, she decides to leave Miami and pursue her dreams in New York.
But Rawlings isn't anything like Lizet expected. She may have been a star student at her underfunded public high school in Florida, but at Rawlings she's barely able to keep her head above water. She pushes herself, studying nonstop, but it's clear she is totally unprepared for the level of rigor college demands. Beyond her serious academic concerns, Lizet also struggles to adjust to the social cues of the other students, who are almost all white, and they to hers. Case in point: her roommate always introduces her by announcing, “This is Lizet. She's Cuban.”
When a young boy named Ariel Hernandez makes national news, Lizet's roommate and friends force her into the awkward and unenviable position of unofficial spokesperson for all Cuban people. Ariel and his mother attempted to escape Cuba on a raft bound for Miami, but when only Ariel survives the trip, his presence in the US causes a whirlwind of controversy as to where he really belongs. The situation stirs up lots of ambivalent feelings in Lizet, who has never had to explain or justify her “Cuban-ness” to anyone before.
The culture shock Lizet experiences when she arrives at Rawlings is the most compelling aspect of the novel. The author does a great job of putting the reader inside Lizet's head to explain some of her more self-destructive choices early on—which is reason enough to read this book, I think.
I did have a few quibbles with the writing, though, which kept me from fully engaging. At several points the narrative loses momentum, a problem that could have been solved with a few judicious cuts. Oddly, Lizet as a narrator goes on far too long, yammering and navel-gazing, yet despite the constant flow of words, her motivations often remain obscured. Some of her choices, particularly how she acts toward Omar and her parents, were completely inexplicable to me. That could certainly be attributed to my lack as a reader, but since I felt I understood some of her other actions, such as choices she made at school, it seems more likely that those scenes back in Miami could have used some fine-tuning.
With regards to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for the advance copy. On sale today, August 4!