Cristina Henríquez’ The World In Half is a deceptively complex, deeply romantic novel that should be next on your summer reading list, and an ideal choice for book groups who enjoy a rich discussion that balances decisions looked back on from middle age against possibilities open only to youth.
Deceptive because on its surface it recounts a naïve young woman’s search for an absent father whose identity has been a closely guarded secret by a steely, abrasive mother. Complex because the still-young mother’s mind has begun to fail under the merciless attack of Alzheimer’s Disease. As mother’s memory fades, the daughter fears what her own future health may bring, the total loss of her mother, and along with that, all connection to the mystery of her father.
Miraflores Reid, “Mira,” a University of Chicago scholarship student majoring in Geology, knows only that her mother lived in Panama with her husband, a Marine stationed in the Zone, where she conceived the child with an unnamed local. The pregnant woman returned to New York to live with her family near West Point, where Catherine Reid’s father taught. Mira wonders how difficult the pregnancy and birth must have been in that small-minded military town. Catherine is white. Was Gatún black? Danilo has “brown” skin, and Mira may “look” Puerto Rican, or like a local of whom Panameño travelers ask directions.
Escaping that life, Catherine takes her child to Chicago where she works a series of survival jobs as waitress, pizza delivery, receptionist. Mother keeps a wall between herself and the social world, treating others abruptly and welcoming little humor or flirtation into her privacy. Mira carries herself similarly, but this may simply reflect her nerdly scientific bent.
Much of the mother’s personality emerges over the course of the story. Early in the novel, as Mira is organizing her mother’s property, she comes across a box of letters her father mailed to the woman who abandoned him. Mira’s mother led the daughter to believe the man had no interest in either of them. The letters open Mira to a poetic and broken heart whose longing for a daughter and fugitive lover cries off the pages.
The letters provide two vital clues to help Mira unravel the mystery. A name, Gatún Gallardo, and an address in Panama. With these, the desperate young woman launches herself on an ill-planned, desperate quest to recover the facts of her own birth and reconnect with the heart-broken man. Fortunately for Miraflores, her mother has enrolled the child in Spanish language classes and, as a Spanish minor, she has superb bilingual skills.
Arriving in Panamá--note the diacritic, an authorial denotation that the English-language narrative is taking place in the local idiom—Mira makes friends with Hernán, a hotel bellman, and his nephew Danilo, an ambulante flower seller. Hernán invites Mira to move into their home while Danilo helps Mira track down the clues leading to her father. Danilo warms to the task of tour guide and intercultural informant.
Mira is a guileless virgin and would be easy prey for a womanizing school dropout like Danilo. But he wants to be her friend. In fact, the most serious crisis in their relationship occurs when, nearing the end of her stay, a drunk Mira caresses her host in a late-night conversation. He bolts and she spends the next day tracking him down instead of tracking down clues to her still-unreachable father.
Danilo looks into Mira’s heart and fears, and draws them out in conversation. On the surface, they talk of her fears that Alzheimer’s will strike Mira young, as it has her mother. On a different level is the parallel of Catherine coming to Panama to find a man, and here is the daughter, come to Panama and finding a man. The mother, nineteen years earlier, had returned home pregnant. Now here is the fruitless frustration Mira experiences of not finding any trace of her mother’s lover, even as Danilo unwittingly draws Mira’s affection toward himself.
The canal across the isthmus cut the world in half. That is what the laborers who dug the waterway used to say. Alzheimer’s is cutting Catherine and Mira’s world in half, as their personalities do in their social world. Mira stands astride both halves, her parental history on the one side, her own future on the other. How much will history repeat itself, will Mira make the same errors her mother has, abandoning love in Panama to a bitter life of denial in Chicago? Adding complexity to themes of choice and circumstance, Danilo’s story echoes Mira’s. He’s been abandoned by his parents, a difference being he has their address and phone number but they never call. That story lurks in the background as we work through Mira’s story.
Henríquez draws a parallel between mother and daughter when Mira meets her father’s sister in a rich part of town. A box of letters Gatún Gallardo never mailed to Catherine fills in blanks missing from the letters Catherine closeted. Mira gets unreasonably angry that Hernán and Danilo knew and didn’t help until her stay was near its end. Unlike her mother, however, Mira lets it out, confronting Danilo angrily. He convinces her that friendship and love were the motive for what Hernán and Danilo suspected, only suspected. They believed it would be preferable to keep hope alive in Mira’s heart, rather than break it with a hard truth.
The World in Half tells a complex story that a casual summary can only hint at. Cristina Henríquez rewards her readers with compelling narrative and touching personal portraits of the city and residents. Much of the enjoyment of the romantic nature of the novel comes as the story unfolds, and to disclose details will spoil the pleasure of seeing it firsthand with your own eyes. One indication of this comes in the names. Both Miraflores and Gatún are names of locks on the canal. It’s not just that a lock allows the uniting of both halves of the world, but that Catherine, despite closing off her daughter’s life from her father’s, gave her daughter a name like her father's, one that foretells her quest to bring both worlds together.
As the novel ends, Catherine’s illness grows increasingly severe and dictates much of what must come next. But beyond a daughter’s responsibilities lie the choices Miraflores can make, but that Henríquez leaves open to delicious speculation. Your book group will enjoy discussing and accounting for what happened in Catherine’s life, more so the undefined what ifs that lie ahead for a young woman like Mira and a young man like Danilo.