Title: Between the Lines
Author: Melissa de la Cruz
Genre: Contemporary, Romance, YA, Drama
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ | 2.0 of 5.0
I wish I could say I enjoyed this novel. I even wish I say this novel simply “wasn’t for me.” Unfortunately, neither of these are true. I will preface this by saying that I’m neither Filipinx nor undocumented, so my personal impressions should be taken with a grain of salt, and should not take precedent over the opinion of someone who is Filipinx, undocumented, or both. That said, I found the novel to be extremely juvenile for its target demographic, and it was also incredibly microaggressive, especially where it came to respectability politics. I DNF-ed this book at just over 50% of the way through.
Initially, I was excited to read a novel about an undocumented Filipina girl because there are a lot of undocumented Asian Americans, but as a community, we don’t centre their voices nearly enough. Something in Between follows Jasmine de los Santos, who seems to lead a charmed life––pretty, popular, a cheerleader and a contender for valedictorian, she’s surrounded by loving friends and family. She’s fully prepared to live the American Dream. That is, until the day she’s notified that she qualified for a major college scholarship, but her parents tell her there’s no way she can accept, because she lacks documentation. While her world is crashing around her, she becomes increasingly reliant on Royce (…you read that name correctly), whose father is one of the most strident anti-immigrant congressmen on Capitol Hill.
Even from the title and the initial few pages, I had my reservations about the narrative. It had a lot of the same problems I found in Cruz’s earlier novel, Fresh Off the Boat, which nixes any of my hopes that she’s developed either politically or as a writer this last decade and a half: there’s a lot of very simplistic, unnuanced, and underdeveloped politics, the writing slants extremely young for a 17-year-old protagonist (I don’t remember high school very well because high school was awful, but it was only four years ago for me and we were definitely interested in things just a tad more mature than this writing), which is largely because the novel relies on telling, not showing. More than that, I found the entire conceit of the novel––the idea of being in-between as a condition of Asian American-ness––to be me, politically, about a decade ago. So, like I said of her earlier novel, I might have enjoyed this in middle school.
It’s an old narrative, a standard one, a boring one, and one which fits more and more like an old skin I’ve already grown out of––there is nothing there in that narrative that is of value to me anymore. Perhaps at one point I would have been happy with a book about being “in between” identities, but now I reject the fact that Asianness and Americanness are necessarily fixed, separate identities that I must learn to navigate, or that I need either one of those identities to accept me.
This was about ten pages in, and also least of this novel’s problems.
The biggest, most glaring, most unavoidable, that kind of cystic-acne coming to a head right in between your eyebrows Issue™ with this novel was its incredibly simplistic handling of undocumented immigration, which relies heavily on respectability politics to inculcate your sympathy for the protagonist and her family, and which ends on an unrealistic, false-hope, magic-hand-waving kind of ending which cheapened the whole experience of reading (I actually gave up long before the point of that ending, but even knowing how it ended made me roll my eyes because that’s so far from people’s real, lived experiences, and is a one-in-a-million type ending that makes me tilt my head at anyone claiming this to me a nuanced, complex, representation of undocumented immigrants). This book was also about 120 pages too long, but we’ll get to that later.
The thing about this novel. The thing about this novel. Is that even as it tries to talk about the cracking of The American Dream™ (I thought we figured out in the 1920s that it was a lie? I thought we all realised that the bootstraps myth was just that–a myth? Whatever, moving forward), it wholeheartedly engages in the peddling of that nonsense narrative that if you’re Good Enough, if you Work Hard Enough, someday you, too, may be able to pay the price of admission for citizenship to America. Even if that price of admission is paid for by wealthy connections it’s impossible to ask undocumented people to have.
The novel repeatedly emphasises the de los Santos family as being Good™ and Law Abiding™ and Model Citizens with an academically high achieving daughter––and it lists these as reasons for why the de los Santos family should not be deported, why they should be allowed to remain in the United States and pursue paths to citizenship, why Jas should be allowed to attend college, why it would be such a travesty to return to Philippines.
This brings up several issues:
- Jas (and by extension, de la Cruz) talks about the Philippines like it’s nothing more than a hellhole where dreams and hopes go to die, and there are no perceived paths to success (which of course, does not include careers that Jas disparages as being Unsuited for Her Potential and a Dead End Job, like being a domestic worker)
- This implies that undocumented immigrants who do have infractions against them, or who are not academically high achieving and “bring something to the country” (an inherent anti-labourer notion, given the way capitalism conceives of value and worth and its correlation with certain kinds of privileged labour) are not as deserving of paths to citizenship or the right to remain
- It implies you must somehow prove yourself or be extraordinary to be allowed to remain in a country you have grown up in, in a situation you never asked to be in, to be given a chance to achieve the only future you’ve ever imagined for yourself
- I understand that this is the most easily accepted narrative, and to an extent I understand why this is the narrative most often told, and I get that a narrative about someone who is undocumented but does not fit the mold of the Perfect Patriotic™ (and there is this in spades, which I’m incredibly cynical about) High-Achieving Model American will likely not appeal to those who already take a dim view of undocumented immigrants to begin with, but judging by some of the reviews this novel has gotten, even a protagonist like Jas will not endear them to the idea of granting status to to people who are undocumented. So.
There are also moments where de la Cruz pulls the whole “you’re as bad as the people who hate you” kind of rhetoric and all I have to say is that I was so far past that rhetoric in high school that to look back on the kind of person I would have have to been to have nodded wholeheartedly to any part of this novel requires me to physically flip my eyes into my skull and I’m not into that, no thanks.
Because I have a high salt content in my body, I will say this: judging someone because their father is one of the largest anti-immigration crusaders in the nation, and the majority leader of a regressive political party that dehumanises you on your (lack of) status is not the same thing as judging someone for being undocumented. de la Cruz tries again and again to try and justify how Jas’ wariness towards Royce (Royce) is Wrong and her judging him based on his father’s policy is Wrong. But I want someone to explain to me why being suspicious of someone whose father has a vested interest in your deportation is wrong. Fear based in knowledge and fear based in ignorance are two different things. One is a survival tactic, the other is a power play.
Aside from this, though, there were other problems: the resolution was completely unrealistic and does not reflect the majority of people’s experiences, the writing was all tell-not-show, the novel lacked a distinct voice and was clouded by its own cyclic drama, it could have been a full 120 pages shorter and suffer no huge loss of content, and it all felt sappy and maudlin. On one level, I can kind of justify some of these things: we all need escapist fairy tale fiction, and wealthy and politically connected benefactors who sweeps in and saves the day is also a pipe dream of mine, but it made the whole narrative feel so farcical. It’s a perfect fairytale of a story, tied up with a neat red bow and a cherry on top. It’s cake that looks real pretty from the outside, but buckles from the inside when you poke at it too hard, meant to be looked at, not digested. Which is unfortunate, really, because this could have been a lot more than it ended up being.