What Makes ‘America Is Not the Heart’ So Special?

You’re a reader. Let’s talk about Elaine Castillo’s use of second person.

elaine castillo, america is not the heart
Mondadori Portfolio

Upon finishing Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart, you will likely ask yourself, What makes this book so good? The answer: many things, reader. In fact, we can begin with the novel’s first sentence: “So you’re a girl and you’re poor, but at least you’re light-skinned—that’ll save you.”

The tone is quite casual, and the narrator feels close, sagacious, and hauntingly prophetic. The sentence also reads as a simple musing, a hypothetical that asks you, the reader, to mold yourself into another figure. We learn later that this sentence introduces the story of Paz, the wife of protagonist Hero’s uncle Pol, from her early childhood in the Philippines to the moment she births her daughter, Roni, in America. Even though Paz does not take up that much space as the novel progresses, the invisible force of her character pulses throughout the rest of the novel and is indeed both structurally and thematically its linchpin, a figure who allows us to see people on two sides of the “immigrant experience”—those from poor working-class backgrounds and those from moneyed families.

Nonetheless, the second-person point of view is arguably the most daring perspective to employ in fiction, because it ostensibly comes with more risks than rewards: it is oftentimes understood as gimmicky; it eventually bores; or it cannot be effectively sustained over many pages, which is why it is predominantly used (when it is used) in short stories (though, of course, there are plenty of examples that argue otherwise: think Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel, Bright Lights, Big City).

A Chicago Tribune review of America Is Not the Heart seemingly confirms this general consensus; critic Amy Gentry notes that the two sections written in second person are “not, strictly speaking, necessary, and thus a bit distracting.” Another reviewer includes Castillo’s use of second person in a list of things that won’t entice readers.

Yet, the second person, in addition to setting the tone, style, and world of America Is Not the Heart, asks important questions of you, the reader. I would go so far as to say that the opening section introduces a very complex relationship among the reader and the characters that goes beyond Castillo wanting us to step into Paz’s life. The first sentence shows us (and animates) the distance between reader and narrator. We are in proximity, yes, but rather than fully inhabit the character, we are meant to recognize and sit with difference, along with comfort and discomfort.

In this way, the reading experience of America Is Not the Heart becomes immensely active, not only because we are implicated in the narrative, but also because we are involved in the production of it.

To join Castillo in conversation with Alta’s California Book Club:

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