How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water will make you want to look at life differently, to think,”What would Cara do?” The audio book version was like listening to a radio play to such an extent, I wondered if this short novel was written only for audio and double checked. It IS a book. But check out the audio. It is fabulously well performed and makes an already emotionally intelligent and emotionally engaging book grab you and make you sit in your car to listen to just one more chapter.
The concept for the book is great: Cara, a Dominican Republic immigrant who has lived in the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan for years and in her rent controlled apartment for over twenty years, is taking advantage of an Obama era job program for older people. She will receive benefits for going through twelve weeks of job counseling and, hopefully, finding a job. The factory she worked in in New Jersey moved to Costa Rica and left Cara and many of her friends out of work. Her life had a rhythm and purpose, getting up each day to take the van across the George Washington Bridge for a job she loved. And now, Cara meets each week with the job counselor/social worker and the voice we hear is Cara’s throughout, talking about her interests, then opening up little by little till we learn all about Cara, her best friend Lulu, her 96 year old neighbor who she feeds every night, her belief in an email/phone psychic that she pays for help and insight, her much younger sister Angela who became an accountant, is married to a hospital worker and saves her money to move to Long Island. Angela’s children, who Cara cares for after school each day. Lulu’s distress and breakdown over family concerns. Cara’s estrangement from her son, that breaks her heart. Her vicious mother who tried to make Cara stay with her dangerous and abusive husband before she fled for New York. Cara is the one who helps organize neighbors to check on the forty year old daughter of a woman who has to work three jobs, so that this very disabled woman/child can stay with her. Cara is the one who cleans that friend’s apartment when the daughter gets very upset in the middle of the night and throws things around, breaking them. She creates a better place for her friend to come home.
The thing is Cara has faced a lot and she cares for people who face a lot. She has done the best she could, sometimes making big mistakes. And she learns from them. There is a TON of humor in this novel because there is a TON of humor in looking at each of our lives and choices and beliefs about what we have done right or wrong. The laugh out loud stuff comes from when Cara takes tests or fills out applications or creates her first password and responds to password recovery questions. She gives full responses to these questions, not understanding the point and it is deeply funny and sweet. Less sweet and also funny is the name of the company that is trying to offload all of the Dominican residents in rent controlled apartments so that they can gentrify the building that is still undeniably in a high crime neighborhood where white people will find more affordable places to live and work in Manhattan. I, of course, read the audio book and cannot tell you the name of the company, so you get to hear or read the joke for yourself.
We, the outsiders to this conversation can see the times that Cara has to come to terms with having done something wrong and her efforts to justify it, because she knows she is fundamentally a good woman. Change comes slowly to Cara. But her humanity and love forces her to see her errors and to make amends, to do the work and to change and embrace change. She also knows what she can do and believes in herself and is proud of her strengths. She can speak English fluently, but if a job requires talking on the phone it will not work because she cannot understand English speaking people on the phone. She cannot take a job with a one hour commute because of the people she takes care of every day. She cannot have an in home daycare because she does not believe in behavior management that never involves the right to use at least a whack across the legs. But she is willing to try new things and learn about other ways of looking at the world. It just takes her some time.
Most of us have probably seen Cara in the store or standing at the bus stop or working as a house cleaner but few in my position in life can know Cara, the human being, the remarkable force, the sympathetic woman. Cruz opens the window and lets me peek in and meet this smart, complex character with a huge heart and a full life we can only wish for. I want to eat at her house. I want to be someone she cares about. I want to learn about her culture. I want her son to forgive her. This book is poignant, loving, funny, all that life should be. Read it. Better yet: Listen to it.