by Kati Heng
Vanja’s mother isn’t the type of woman who stays in one place. Once she decides to leave, she goes and goes and doesn’t look back. It’s not that she’s a gypsy, she’s no senseless wanderer traveling without direction; it’s just that when she gets tired of something, it’s over.
She’s always been this way. She’ll move between Brazil, America, settling in a place for as long as she can. It’s the same with men. She loves them until she has to leave them, a switch that happens instantaneously. Fernando, for instance. They were married six years until it just…ended. She flew off so quickly, moving to America, meeting a man named Daniel and falling for him.
It’s Daniel that gets her pregnant, fathering Vanja. But she never sees him again. It’s Fernando’s name written as the father on Vanja’s birth certificate.
Which isn’t a big deal. At least until Vanja’s mother dies, leaving the 13-year-old girl alone, with a dad somewhere in America.
Staying with Fernando, her father in name even though she had never met the man, Vanja plans to track down her biological dad from a new base in the United States. At least, that’s the reason she gives to us as the reader. In truth, Vanja carries on the life of her mother, leaving her home in Rio de Janeiro at the drop of a hat, easily casting aside her possessions and material weights.
Fernando’s a mystery to her, but also, maybe the only man who truly knew her mother. A former guerilla fighter, the man is now living quietly in Colorado, working as a security guard and cleaner, keeping his profile low. Vanja doesn’t know much about his past – her mother told her so little about her husband – but over the course of the novel, his story (as well as much of her mother’s story) is revealed.
Of course, it’s scary at first, showing up at the doorstep of a man to whom Vanja has no real claim. And it’s weird living in America, a country where you have to ask people if you may pet their dog before rubbing its tummy, where you have to be careful not to brush shoulders on the sidewalk. Vanja adopts quickly, though, thanks in no small part to the English her mother taught her as a child.
Also brightening her time in the U.S. – the 9-year-old neighbor boy Carlos, a precocious little kid that is happy to carry on conversations with Vanja in Spanish, and eventually, step in as a sort of surrogate brother.
The story starts off with a pseudo-orphan leaving home, coming to America just to track down the rest of her family. Quickly though, it’s evident she’s had a family all along, just waiting for her to discover them, and willing to help her discover her the truth about herself along the way.