Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Family Sentence: The Search for my Cuban-Revolutionary, Prison-Yard, Mythic-Hero, Deadbeat Dad by Jeanine Cornillot

I know it's hard to believe, but I think it's about to happen. I'm going to review a book that was written for an adult audience. It's been over a month, but hopefully I've been the only one counting. We have my quest to catch up with LibraryThing Early Reviewer books to thank for this one.

Family Sentence is Jeanine Cornillot's tale of growing up with a father in prison. Growing up, Jeanine's world is sharply divided. There's the world she knows, the one where she lives in a house dominated by women in suburban Philadelphia where men are absent and foreign to her. The other part of her world is a little more uncertain. Summers, growing up, she spent with her Cuban grandparents in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. Most of her Miami relatives speak no English and Jeanine, despite being half Cuban, knows no Spanish. Despite having her cousins for interpreting, the language barrier and her decidedly un-Cuban looks make her own relatives a little foreign to her despite being bound by blood.

Jeanine's father, a self-professed Cuban revolutionary determined to free Cuba from Castro's rule, was in prison for all of the childhood she can remember for the crime of bombing an Air Canada ticket office. All that she knows of her father she learns from his infrequent letters and a few family trips to visit him in prison during her summers in Miami. All the rest, she makes up as she goes along. She worries and wonders about her father's life in prison, imagines a family reunion that she's certain will never happen while she's still a child, and she perpetrates tiny acts of terrorism in school hallways imagining the revolutionary blood that runs through her veins and bonds her to a father who she doesn't know and will never understand.

Family Sentence is a book about a girl growing into a woman and trying to piece together the disparate pieces of her identity. It's also the story of a girl trying to know a father who is distant and perplexing even when he volunteers answers to any question she might have. It's a story about reconciling the myth of a dad, who by his ideals and through a daughter's loving but ignorant eyes has become larger than life with a real person who has lived an imperfect life without the regrets readers would expect.

Cornillot tells her story with brutal honesty, painting the naive girl she was, desperate to look and seem more "Cuban" for a father who could barely be bothered to remember her when they were apart. She brings her young self to vivid life with many anecdotes of her young life complete with her girlhood imaginings and her childish quirks like her penchant for saying "that's a crime" about anything that seems slightly unjust. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems like the anecdotes get away from her, and that makes for the book's one flaw that it's easy to get lost in the individual anecdotes and lose track of where Cornillot is going with the larger narrative of her life with and without her father. However, the book seems to collect itself in its final chapters as Jeanine reunites with her father as a teenager and a young adult and all the myths and misconceptions she had about her father collide. Ultimately, Cornillot's is a compelling memoir that draws us into her life and tells a personal story that every kid who's ever idolized a parent only to grow up and discover a fallible human being can relate to.

Review copy received from Beacon Press via LibraryThing Early Reviewers.


  1. I love the subtitle of this book! Great review--I've added it to my TBR list.

  2. This sounds really interesting! Despite my general hesitation towards memoirs, lol.