Reviewed by Emma Crowley
For fourteen years, Letty Espinosa has worked three jobs around San Francisco to make ends meet while her mother raised her children—Alex, now fifteen, and Luna, six—in their tiny apartment on a forgotten spit of wetlands near the bay. But now Letty’s parents are returning to Mexico, and Letty must step up and become a mother for the first time in her life.
Navigating this new terrain is challenging for Letty, especially as Luna desperately misses her grandparents and Alex, who is falling in love with a classmate, is unwilling to give his mother a chance. Letty comes up with a plan to help the family escape the dangerous neighborhood and heartbreaking injustice that have marked their lives, but one wrong move could jeopardize everything she’s worked for and her family’s fragile hopes for the future.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh's second novel has a beautiful title and an equally as striking and magical cover. We Never Asked for Wings has been a long time coming, the author has freely admitted this book was difficult to write. No doubt she was conscious of the huge success of her début novel The Language of Flowers. I adored this book and Sharon mentioned it was also one of the first books she ever reviewed for the blog. I place her first book alongside Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus - polls apart in terms of content yet destined to be future classics which have that special quality that is becoming increasingly hard to find in books. The subject matter can be a bit abstract yet you are drawn in and lost in a whole world right to the very last page.
In the case of this new book the burning question is did the author crumble under the pressure of the expectations surrounding book number two? The novel they say is so difficult to write and to get right. This is a brilliant story and had I not read The Language Of Flowers I would rave about this book to everybody but it didn't have that magic touch or that feeling I remember while reading the first book. I Never Asked for Wings is a fantastic story but I had the highest of expectations that looking back on could never have been fulfilled. There is nothing at all wrong with this story it did grab me initially and the characters and their lives grew on me the further I read but I can see why Vanessa Diffenbaugh took so long to write this story.
The book opens with Letty Espinosa leaving her two children Alex (14) and Luna (6) all alone in their apartment as she chases her mother across country. Maria Elena and her husband Enrique had been more or less rearing their grandchildren for the past fourteen years as Letty worked a series of dead end jobs to make enough money to keep the family going. Living in an area called The Landing outside San Francisco life has been tough. Letty the daughter of immigrants from Mexico had such promise but threw it all away and now relies heavily on her parents for her child care needs. Lack of education, 2 DUI's and a bar-tending job at the local airport haven't done much to further Letty's life or career prospects.The area where they live is full of immigrants - illegals who are now in America the land of opportunity but yet opportunity does not always come knocking at their door. They see across the main road the affluent San Francisco and wish they could be their living their dreams. Enrique after so many years in America returned to Mexico to look after his ailing mother. The plans were all in place to return across the border, money has been exchanged but yet he has failed to return on the agreed date. What else can Maria Elena do but go and seek her husband?
Letty catches up with her mother and is made to drive her to Mexico. Once there Maria Elena decides she is staying and not coming back. Possibly this idea had been in her mind all along but this decision leaves Letty devastated. Who is going to look after the children? Make their lunches, buy their clothes etc. Letty is just about to find out. You could tell straight away that Letty was someone who shied away from all responsibilities. OK she made the money to provide food for the table but she liked the good times and a drink or two. She always pushed her burden onto others and she needs her mother to come back to care for the kids as that is the way it has always been. She doesn't know what to do and feels its unfair to have to change her ways after such a long time of routine. Letty feels she can't go on but I knew this was Letty's chance to turn things around. Maria Elena knew her daughter had to change and couldn't always be reliant on others. This was the wake up call Letty needed for the good of her children. I think this quote sums up how Maria Elena felt regarding the whole issue 'Her mother would cut her heart in two and send half back to California, to care for her daughter and grandchildren, and keep the other half there to live out the remainder of her days with her husband'.
The book then began to have two stories – Letty and how she slowly crawls out of the hole she created for herself and the story of her son Alex. I think he was an even better character than Letty. Luna is great too with her funny acute observations on day to day situations and she did steal the show several times. But with Alex there was an awful lot going on. He was clever and had a huge love of nature and science inspired by his grandfather. Enrique had used feathers from the birds who lived and migrated from the marshy areas surrounding The Landing to make pieces of artwork. Alex is left bereft that his grandparents will not be coming back. He has to grow up fast as he feels he is now the man of the house as Letty is not always the stable influence a mother should be. I felt Alex was given too much responsibilities for someone still so young .He should be enjoying his carefree teenage days. At one point Letty even lets him drink with her which really didn't do much to make me like her. Alex begins to question his parentage, just who was his father and where is he now? At the same time he slowly starts to form a relationship with Yeseina a girl at his school. She is not like any other girl he has known she has a disability but she does not let this stop her exploring and living life to the full. Her mother is also an illegal immigrant who struggles to get by. The constant threat of discovery and deportation is a shadow always present in this novel. Vanessa Diffenbaugh does a sterling job of evoking the fear these people lived under and many people probably still do today. As Alex and Yeseina glimpse the life they could be living just across the free way they wonder just how they can achieve this for themselves.
Overall I think I preferred Alex's story much more than Letty's. To be honest I found her selfish and if I stand back at look at it I don't think she really would have changed at all only for Maria Elena taking matters into her own hands. Letty is forced to grow up make more money, get a better home for her children and get them the education and opportunities they deserve. Alex's talent as science needs to be exploited. I felt the romantic element thrown in didn't really add anything to the story. Do we always have to have a man coming in and attempting to save the day? The book was moving along nicely until Rick and Wes made their appearances. Wes was essential but Rick didn't have much of a place in my opinion. The last quarter of the book really picked up and my emotions were all over the place as reality does really begin to hit and I was so hoping for a certain outcome as it brought ll the themes of the book closely woven together.
So We Never Asked for Wings has proven to be the difficult second novel but I still enjoyed reading it as the themes of love, loss, immigration and motherhood were all explored really well. Some of the characters I cared for more than others and some elements of the story could have been left out. I would recommend this book but don't begin it thinking you will be reading another The Language of Flowers because it certainly isn't that. I look forward to seeing what Vanessa writes next in the hopes she can create that magic she achieved before.