In her debut novel, Jennine Capó Crucet writes of Lizet Ramirez, a first-generation Cuban American from Hialeah, Fla., struggling to survive her freshman year at a prestigious private university. College is a rare ticket out of Lizet's rough neighborhood, but rising to meet its challenges forces her to abandon parts of a bold personality she honed at home. Her friends and family disapprove of these changes; the more she adapts, the louder they protest.
Lizet doesn't fit in at school, either. There she encounters well-meaning professors and students determined to define her based on their own ideas of minority students. Grateful for their help in an accidental plagiarism debacle, Lizet still can't help but feel stigmatized by her old neighborhood. Eventually, she stops calling home; it's too difficult to explain her struggles in the foreign college world to her parents, and she is losing her connection to their lives.
Crucet's strength lies in revealing Lizet's inner dialogue. Once she stops calling home, Lizet says of her parents, "We never admitted that we'd needed to believe them when they told us nothing was wrong." She admits that she needs to accept the kind things her parents say to make peace, even if the words are not true. "Make Your Home" illuminates Lizet's conflicting emotions with honest prose, while an Elián González-inspired subplot underscores her struggle. Lizet's efforts to navigate a world of mostly white privilege are told with self-deprecating humor and an understanding of the awkward conversations many students must have in their first years in college.
Make Your Home Among Strangers
Jennine Capó Crucet
St. Martin's: 400 pp., $26.99
Partington is a writer in Elk Grove, Calif.