At thirteen, Ruthy Ramirez disappeared sometime after track practice. We never meet her father. He died a few years after Ruthy disappeared. Dolores, her mother, went a bit mad. It is 2008. Nina just graduated from her premed program at an elite school. She avoided going home for college breaks and has not seen her oldest sister Jessica or her mother, Delores, for two years. Now, twelve years after Ruthy disappeared, Nina’s coming back to Staten Island. Jessica has a baby and a full time job. It’s time Nina helps take care of Dolores. After Ruthy did not come home, Dolores gave up her Catholic faith, opting to go to a Pentecostal Church with her dear friend Irene. She is teaching a parenting class at the church for women referred by the child services agency. And always present for them is Ruthy’s absence.
So, there is a pervasive overlay of sadness throughout this story. Of course there is. But Jimenez captures so well the day to day lives of a close knit family that squabbles and juggles child care, pours love into cooking and cleaning, and working. The young women are smart and have dreams that you know are achievable. Nina didn’t get into medical school. Jessica didn’t finish college. But you know they won’t stay in the low level jobs they work to make ends meet.
We smile — a lot– at the alternating narratives of these women, their thoughts about each other, about their bosses and coworkers, about Jessica’s boyfriend, about their shared history that is more than but always includes the day Ruthy disappeared. We feel warmly toward them. We root for them. And we root for Ruthy. Because here and there, Ruthy tells the story of that day, filled in as well by Nina’s and Jessica’s observations. Her family acknowledges to us, what they did not tell the police: It is very possible Ruthy ran away that day. She was kind of wild. She once disappeared overnight. And that possibility leads to a whole chain of events that advance publicity on this novel spilled far too much. Just in case you have not read the advance publicity, I am not going to talk about it. It makes for a great road trip story, followed by a hysterical and indescribable, yet perfectly described scene in a Boston club.
It’s early times in 2023, but I think this will be one of my top books for the year. As I noted, Jiminez captures what it means to be family in all of its craziness and love and despair and resentment. In this case, the family is Puerto Rican and the different experiences of the first and second generation New Yorkers, steadily trying to move up and questioning how far they have made it is a central theme. It matters that Ruthy is Latina, a person of color and that her disappearance did not get any serious attention from the police. And that is a major, major part of the point. Yet every character is relatable, faults and all. Sisters have the same fights everywhere. Mothers have some method of bringing them together or of losing it with their children. This is undeniably a beautifully written Puerto Rican version of all this, but every reader will find it familiar, while appreciating the culture and community of this particular family. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.