Book Review: America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

A sprawling, soulful debut about three generations of women in one family struggling to balance the promise of the American dream and the unshakeable grip of history. [Pub. Penguin Books. 432 pp.]

How many lives fit in a lifetime?

When Hero De Vera arrives in America—haunted by the political upheaval in the Philippines and disowned by her parents—she’s already on her third. Her uncle gives her a fresh start in the Bay Area, and he doesn’t ask about her past. His younger wife knows enough about the might and secrecy of the De Vera family to keep her head down. But their daughter—the first American-born daughter in the family—can’t resist asking Hero about her damaged hands.

An increasingly relevant story told with startling lucidity, humor, and an uncanny ear for the intimacies and shorthand of family ritual, America Is Not the Heart is a sprawling, soulful debut about three generations of women in one family struggling to balance the promise of the American dream and the unshakeable grip of history. With exuberance, grit, and sly tenderness, here is a family saga; an origin story; a romance; a narrative of two nations and the people who leave one home to grasp at another.

In a time of fake news, literature is one of the best ways to combat ignorance and apathy. If you’re lucky, Dekada ‘70 by Lualhati Bautista, a novel about the dark years of Martial Law, made its way into your required reading list in high school. Or perhaps you found Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn while browsing the shelves of your local bookstore. 

America is Not the Heart is the book you read after you’ve learned the facts and horrors of life under a dictatorial regime, and now have room for another kind of story—one where its ghost lingers and never quite leaves.

Far from home

Elaine Castillo’s debut novel begins with the story of Paz, a nurse working multiple jobs in Milpitas, California. After escaping poverty in the Philippines, she builds a home with her husband Pol and daughter Roni, as well as a new self through the paychecks she receives from working two jobs. 

But though the story begins with Paz and never quite leaves her family’s orbit, majority of the novel follows Hero de Vera, her husband’s niece, who they long assumed was dead.

Hero arrives in America damaged—the survivor of brutal torture during Martial Law, saved only by the influential de Vera family’s proximity to the Marcoses. But her surname didn’t save her hands from being broken repeatedly by the military, or from the nightmares she now has about the lives she lived before this strangely banal one in the American suburbs.

At first, Hero’s world is small, consisting solely of driving her younger cousin Roni to school, and from there, to the many faith healers Paz has consulted to cure Roni’s eczema. But soon she meets Rosalyn, a headstrong young woman—and a faith healer’s granddaughter—who works in a nearby salon, and slowly but surely, Hero’s world expands, opening up to new family, friends, lovers, and even love.

The nuances of language

America is Not the Heart takes the reader from the Philippines to California and back through various characters, and Castillo similarly shifts languages and tenses to move between the past, present, and future. She eschews quotation marks and even italics when her characters shift into Tagalog or Ilocano or, ever so briefly, Pangasinan, but her writing remains clear enough for readers not to get lost.

Castillo has a great grasp of the distinctions that differentiate a Filipino from a Filipino-American, but also manages to show the myriad ways that Filipinos are connected to one another. 

Similarly remarkable is how organically the relationships in the novel develop. Instead of melodrama, Castillo focuses instead on realistic, complex, sometimes undefinable interactions, including the growing connection, and later, relationship, between Hero and Rosalyn, who are opposites in almost every way.

There’s no one way to be Filipino

Though America Is Not the Heart comes filled to the brim with characters, each of them with a distinct relationship with the Philippines and America—and existing as a Filipino while trying to own their space in a country founded on racism and a sense of false superiority—their stories ring true: humorous, affectionate, tragic, poignant.

Through Hero, Castillo also shares insights and anecdotes about white imperialism’s effects on the Philippines, its people, and its diaspora. And her observations about Filipino and Fil-Am communities, along with both their privileges and their prejudices, are heart-wrenchingly real; it feels like she has lived each of her characters’ lives, known them intimately, and laid them bare for all of us to see.

A moving, deftly written read

America is Not the Heart reels in the reader by promising a story of Martial Law, and keeps their attention with an insightful narrative touching on dictatorship and corruption, immigration and alienation, the distinct Filipino blend of religion and superstition, and the intimacy of queerness and belonging. And at the heart of the story is the question: How does a place become a home? How do people make a home for themselves?

A skillfully written debut novel built on deep fondness, familiarity, and love, America is Not the Heart is a novel for the ages. Highly recommended.  ♦

This August, take the time to read a novel by a striking new Filipino-American talent.

Do you live in the Philippines? If you do, you can get America is Not the Heart (Paperback) by Elaine Castillo and other literary fiction books online and at Fully Booked bookstore branches nationwide. Elaine Castillo’s new book of essays, How to Read Now, is also available on Fully Booked Online. (As a Fully Booked Reading Ally, I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through my links. Thanks!)

Thank you to Fully Booked for the ARC! This review was originally posted on Fully Booked Online in March 2018. This review has been edited. Check out Fully Booked on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

2 responses to “Book Review: America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo”

    • Thank you so much, Kal! And it really is—I hope you’ll like it when you manage to get your hands on it!


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