Book Review: The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

I got into a bit of a slump halfway through reading this, so take my rating with a grain of salt. I think I would have enjoyed this a lot more if I’d read it at a different time. It took me almost a week to read this and I had long breaks in between sessions, which lowered my enjoyment of this book. The Other Americans isn’t a happy story, so that didn’t help either. My review will be more of a mishmash of thoughts, since I’m not quite sure how I feel about this book. 

Details

  • Name: The Other Americans
  • Author: Laila Lalami
  • Genre: Contemporary, mystery, literary fiction
  • Page count: 320
  • Published: March 26, 2019

Rating

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Blurb

From the Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of The Moor’s Account, here is a timely and powerful novel about the suspicious death of a Moroccan immigrant–at once a family saga, a murder mystery, and a love story, informed by the treacherous fault lines of American culture.

Late one spring night, Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant living in California, is walking across a darkened intersection when he is killed by a speeding car. The repercussions of his death bring together a diverse cast of characters: Guerraoui’s daughter Nora, a jazz composer who returns to the small town in the Mojave she thought she’d left for good; his widow, Maryam, who still pines after her life in the old country; Efraín, an undocumented witness whose fear of deportation prevents him from coming forward; Jeremy, an old friend of Nora’s and an Iraq War veteran; Coleman, a detective who is slowly discovering her son’s secrets; Anderson, a neighbor trying to reconnect with his family; and the murdered man himself.

As the characters–deeply divided by race, religion, and class–tell their stories, connections among them emerge, even as Driss’s family confronts its secrets, a town faces its hypocrisies, and love, messy and unpredictable, is born.

Review

I was so intrigued when I read the blurb; it has family dynamics, a murder mystery, and romance. Sign me up! The plot is unique, and it consists of short chapters that alternate between multiple different characters. This style isn’t for everyone, but the linear timeline minimizes any confusion. I read one of Laila Lalami’s books last year, and I loved it. As soon as I started reading this, I was reminded of how much I like her writing style. The prose isn’t overwritten, and the dialogue is realistic and powerful. The themes of grief, forgiveness, and letting go were insightful and well written. I haven’t lost a parent, but I could understand what Nora was going through and why she was fighting so hard to hold on to the past.

The atmosphere is somber, and it almost feels like the characters are in an interrogation room. Most chapters start with a phrase signalling the time or place of an event or a memory, which adds to this effect. The suspense builds slowly as the circumstances surrounding Mr. Guerraoui’s death are revealed. I liked Detective Coleman and how her backstory was incorporated. The investigation was compelling and had some good twists. The outcome caught me by surprise, especially because the timing was unexpected.

The biggest influence on my rating is that I didn’t like the love story component. Nora and Jeremey don’t have a drop of chemistry. Reading Jeremy’s thoughts about Nora was downright uncomfortable. They are on completely different pages about their feelings. I was mildly creeped out by how obsessed he was with her. I thought that maybe Nora would fall for him slowly, but their relationship is nothing more than a lukewarm romance fuelled by convenience.

The dynamic between Nora and her sister Salma interested me the most. Nora is constantly pressured to be like her sister, which gives them a strained relationship. Salma is the golden child, but behind closed doors, her life isn’t what it seems. It’s eye-opening to see how Salma’s perspective on her life is so different from her family’s. 

Back to the low lights, the ending felt rushed. Everything wraps up in about 25 pages, and on the last page, three years are condensed into one sentence. The ending is ambiguous, and I was in disbelief about where Nora leaves off because she seems a lot more mature than she was during the story. It also left me with one big question, which was sort of unsatisfying. On the bright side, the ending is optimistic, thankfully.

Overall, this is a compelling story, but I didn’t feel strongly about the main characters. Put together, the constantly changing perspectives kept me reading; but if this was focused on Nora and Jeremy, I might not have finished it. I rate this 3.5 stars because I love Laila Lalami’s writing style, and I did enjoy this at certain times. I recommend this if you like contemporary novels that examine family, grief, and starting a new chapter. If you prefer historical fiction full of adventure, you need to check out her other book, The Moor’s Account

Have you read this book? What did you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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