Book Review: «America Is Not The Heart» by Elaine Castillo


There every so often comes along one of those books that you read, and then, after finishing it, realize it was so perfectly the story you didn’t even know you were looking for.

So it was for me as I “finished” reading Elaine Castillo’s «America Is Not The Heart», about a Filipino family living in the South Bay area in a present-day America. “Finished,” for while my eyes left the page, the landscape and terrain of the story and the characters remain in my mind.

I don’t remember where I saw the title mentioned before I bought it–a day after it hit the shelves at my local new bookseller. After a quick lookup, I think it was a piece at LitHub, an excerpt from the book, that put it on my radar. How lucky I am that I pass two bookstores on my daily work commute (and how dangerous that is for my paycheck)!

The book opens in the second person, and while it only remains there for a chapter, it sets the tone beautifully. You do not know who you are, only that:

“So you’re a girl and you’re poor, but at least you are light-skinned–that’ll save you.”

That somewhat playful, somewhat mournful tone flows through the book and treats every character in it with the utmost honesty and compassion. And what characters they are! Even now, several weeks after finishing, I can open the book at random and feel as if I am remembering the characters’ lives. Remembering them, these creations of words and text.

Is it a love story? An immigrant story? I wouldn’t call it either of those–at least not only, not in isolation, not merely.

I think that America…, in the best of the literary tradition, moves towards universality, as the author Aminata Forna wrote about. That is not to say all of us are Hero de Vera, or Rosalyn, indeed–but that there is something that we can convey through literature, through language. We are different, but not irrevocably separate, you and I.

[SPOILERS follow, although not a synopsis, so…read on?]

The book is only tangentially about “three generations,” by far we focus mostly on the present “two,” that is, Hero de Vera and Ronnie, her aunt’s daughter, and the family as they live in California. Hero is an older ex-rebel commando, whose hands were destroyed after she was captured by regime forces in the Philippines. All of this we learn only through fragmented flashbacks, as Hero adapts to the new land of the South Bay region.

Castillo writes her characters with obvious care for them as people–there are few antagonists, only those whose stories we are not provided with (the jailers and torturers are most certainly on the list of antagonists, although our Hero herself was a guerilla fighter). The de Vera’s, particularly those in America, work hard for what they have–it is not an indictment of the American system, although glimpses of an easy callousness are present whenever the characters have to interact with American bureaucracy or establishment-figures: hospital directors, bosses, police.

The story also contains one of the most well-done lesbian romances as well. Nobody dies for it, there is no cosmic retribution for anyone’s Sapphic desires. It is, as it should be, an unremarkable and yet wholly endearing story about the terrifying and mundane act of falling in love.


The point of this review is not to break down the story, but rather to convince that it is this one story, out of the hundreds and hundreds out there, that deserves to be read right now, as opposed to later, when you can forget about it and it languishes, third-down from the top on your phone’s jotted list of “Books To Read.”