A pregnant teen goes to live with her aunt, whose marriage is already strained.
Not many novels feature New York City's Dominican immigrant community, but even fewer feature a pair of married librarians as protagonists. Jon Michaud (head librarian at the New Yorker magazine) deserves credit just for putting these groups on stage in his debut novel, "When Tito Loved Clara."
Clara Lugo is comfortably settled in a nice house in the New Jersey suburbs with her husband, Thomas, and their young son, Guillermo. She's a short distance geographically but a huge leap emotionally from her teen home of Inwood, the farthest north of all Manhattan's neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the weight of her teen years comes crashing back when her unstable half-sister, Yunis, decides to go live with their mother, who has retired back in the Dominican Republic.
Yunis dumps her pregnant 16-year-old daughter, Deysei, on Clara and Thomas, whose own marriage is under strain from fertility struggles. When it turns out that the father of Deysei's child is Yunis' ex-con boyfriend, the guano really hits the fan.
Flashbacks reveal Clara's unhappy childhood, when she was also unceremoniously dumped on a family member -- in this case, her father and his cruel second wife, Dolores. Clara's only true happiness came from her father's friend, Don Felix Moreno, owner of a hardware store and father to Tito, who becomes Clara's best friend and, later, teenaged lover. That isn't all, by any means: Clara was abused. Clara had an abortion. Tito loses his way. Thomas strays. Clara's beloved high-school English teacher cares for a mother in the throes of dementia. There's so much going on in this novel that it's no wonder one early review complained of its "soap-operatic plot twists."
Another complaint is that a promising early section of the book focusing on Thomas' frustrations with his employment (his company, a digital-information repository, lays him off and then gives him a hefty contracting job, which is how he meets the woman he dallies with) gets lost amid all of the other plot twists. So does Clara's character. Despite the fact that she's hugely sympathetic, a smart and determined survivor, she never comes fully to life, remaining as two-dimensional as the library-catalog card on the cover. Might that be part of the point? After all, the title is "When Tito Loved Clara," intimating that perhaps the best part of both their lives has borne no fruit.
The plot and character problems are a real shame, because they could have been fixed, at least in part, in editing. "When Tito Loved Clara" deserved better edits, because Michaud's writing is gorgeous and a joy to read -- two things that, like librarians and stories of Inwood, don't always go together.
Bethanne Patrick blogs and tweets as the Book Maven. She lives in Virginia.