Title: The Liars of Mariposa Island
Author: Jennifer Mathieu
Genre: Historical YA
Publisher: Roaring Book Press
Publication date: September 17 2019
Hardcover: 256 pages
From the author of Moxie comes a stunning novel told in three voices about the lies families tell to survive.
Every year, summer begins when the Callahans arrive on Mariposa Island. That’s when Elena Finney gets to escape her unstable, controlling mother by babysitting for their two children. And the summer of 1986 promises to be extra special when she meets J.C., the new boy in town, whose kisses make Elena feel like she’s been transported to a new world.
Joaquin Finney can’t imagine why anyone would want to come to Mariposa Island. He just graduated from high school and dreams about going to California to find his father and escape his mother’s manipulation.
The Liars of Mariposa Island follows siblings Elena and Joaquin, with flashbacks to their mother’s experience as a teenage refugee fleeing the Cuban revolution.
Jennifer Mathieu’s multilayered novel explores the nature of secrets, lies, and fierce, destructive love.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Review copy from publisher
Format (e- or p-): ebook
Lies have short legs.
Except when they don’t.
It’s the summer of 1986, and Elena Finney’s babysitting job is about to resume once again. Every summer the wealthy, perfect, perfect Callahan family come back to their house in Mariposa Island, Texas and every summer Elena gets to enjoy a degree of freedom. It is the only time of the year when her over-controlling mother Caridad allows her to go out for hours at a time unsupervised. And if the Callahans come back home earlier than expected now and then or if Elena stretches the hours she is actually needed so she can go out and hang out with her best friend or hook up JC, the new hot guy in town? All the better. As long as her mom never finds out…
Joaquin Finney just graduated high school and this summer is all about spending time with his new hot girlfriend, getting out of the house as much as he can and thinking about what he wants to do with his life. He thinks about moving to California – to get away from his mother’s manipulative behaviour, to perhaps find his father, a father who took off one day, leaving them all behind. But he finds it hard to decide because he would be leaving his baby sister and who would look after her?
A book primarily about the cycles of abuse and its affect in the lives of these three characters, The Liars of Mariposa Island also looks at identity, choices and family. It’s also a book about lies, and manipulation and growing into and out of these things.
Caridad is a manipulative, over-controlling mother who drinks too often and expects too much of Elena and Joaquin. Their lives are infused with so much fear and the book never shies away from it, although the narrative manages to be almost tender in its examination of these topics.
Joaquin’s and Elena’s experiences as Caridad’s children are completely different as are – inevitably – their tactics for coping with their mother’s abuse. Caridad demands way more from Elena: she is the girl after all, less deserving of the liberties and self-determination that are freely bestowed onto Joaquin. The demands on him as the man, as the preferred child are no less destructive of course, but he has freedoms Elena is not allowed to have and that makes all the difference to his demeanour. Elena has become a master of handling it whereas Joaquin has reached a limit, always seeking conflict and facing off with his mom. For Elena, it’s all a matter of confidence when lying, of being agreeable and not clashing with her mother, doing as she is told and finding small ways of coping. She takes care of her mom too – their relationship is almost symbiotic and the breaking away from that cycle seems way more difficult for Elena than for Joaquin in a very plausible and realistic way. Leaving an abuser is never easy.
Elena and Joaquin are the two primary narrators here but the story also has flashbacks to their mother Caridad’s past – first, as a green, exuberant, privileged, rich white Cuban teen in 1957, then following her story as the Cuban Revolution happens and its aftermath. Her family loses their freedoms and resources, and Elena herself is sent away by her parents to live in America as a refugee. The novel is inspired by the author’s own Cuban family and by the historical Operación Pedro Pan – organised by the Catholic Church, this was a mass exodus of thousands of unaccompanied Cuban minors who were then placed in foster care in America. Some of the kids would be eventually reunited with their parents, but not our character, Caridad.
Caridad effectively loses everything : she never sees her beloved parents again, she loses the comfort of her home and the riches of her own country and her own history. Stripped of her language, her culture, her very identity, she is forced to adapt to a life she does not want, in the foster care of a working class family in Texas. She has experienced deeply traumatic events in the lead up to the Revolution too and she is never able to let go. She eventually marries the son of her foster parents and has her children but happiness seems forever elusive to Caridad.
The novel doesn’t excuse her abusive behaviour at all but her past sheds light on her own experiences as the life of this complex, complicated family comes to a crux during the summer of 1986.
Although the 80s setting felt a bit forced with so much brand name dropping, the heart of the novel was truly well done. True to its title, the book does feature liars in the story – but I never saw any of the twists coming. The best thing is that they never took me away from the emotional core of the novel or from its characters’ arc. More than a gimmick, the lies flowed naturally from the characters’ personalities in the best possible way. All the more impressive that for such a complicated subject, the book reads as a summer breeze that brings change rather than a hurricane that could bring destruction. With an open – dare I say, hopeful? – ending that leaves things open to interpretation, The Liars of Mariposa Island is a thoughtful and emotional ride.
Rating: 8 – Excellent