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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Book Review: American Dirt: A Novel by Jeanine Cummins

The person who told me to read this did warn me, that once you pick it up, it's impossible to put down. From page one, it's a roaring adrenaline-rush. In fact, I found it to be a terrible before-bedtime read as it excited me instead of lulling me, and I couldn't sleep at all. I should have just stayed up all night and read the whole thing.

It's hard to know where to go with a description with not wanting to give away even the very first chapter, but I think it's inevitable. Some backstory as preamble: Lydia lives in Acapulco with her husband, a journalist, and young son, Luca. She owns an independent bookstore. Their life seems happy and normal. But one day, they are at her mother's house for a party--it's Lydia's niece's quinceanera. The family is grilling out and everyone has gathered. Luca has gone inside to use the bathroom, and Lydia goes after him to see if he needs help. When the two of them are inside, machine gunfire erupts outside. Lydia grabs Luca and throws him into the shower and throws herself on top of him. They lie in silence, terrified, as they hear their entire family murdered around them. Some the killers come inside. They must be even quieter, making no sound at all. Finally, when there is silence, they must run. Run for their lives. Leave Acapulo forever with only what they have with them. A cartel is after them. Lydia's husband ran a profile of the leader in the local paper, and they vowed not just to kill him, but his whole family. They won't be safe anywhere in Mexico.

This book read like the best kind of summer action movie, but with much higher stakes, if only because the situation was so much more believable. And speaking of believable, I read nearly 100 pages before I finally realized this was fiction. It read just so true, that I was convinced initially that Lydia and Luca were real and that Ms. Cummins had done extensive interviews to tell their stories. Even now, weeks later, writing this summary, my heart has started beating faster, and the rush of the heart-pounding story is literally making my breathing increase. Yet it's not a fluffy beach-read thriller--I learned so much about the plight of immigrants striving to come to America for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. The danger, the uncertainty, the diligence and incredible effort they must put forth for.... who knows what outcome. But for Lydia, and many, many others, there is no other real option. She does what she has to do to protect herself and her child once she has lost everything else in the world. Desperation proves a strong motivator. Pick this book up when you have many hours to devote to it. You won't be able to put it down.

This book is published by Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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