Some novels are built to read at break-neck speed, to rush through page after page, to be gobbled up without pausing to chew well. When Tito Loved Clara, the first novel by The New Yorker librarian Jon Michaud, is not one of them.
No, this is a novel to savor, to want to live in for days and days, to learn all about these characters that they will reveal.
Tito is a boy-man who never got over his high school love, Clara. He has lived a life of quiet desperation, helping his building super father and being reliable at the moving company. He is firmly entrenched in his Dominican neighborhood in NYC. He tries to date other women but none move him like that girl. He does reach out to a new tenant with a young son; with her husband out of the country, Tito becomes a babysitter and wishes for more.
While out with the child one day, Tito is seen by Clara. She doesn't approach him but remembers what they meant to each other as the serious girl who loved books found romance with the boy who once caused a swingset accident. Clara has moved out of the neighborhood, married a white man and now lives in New Jersey as a middle class professional.
When Tito realized Clara was special, the passage is a magical accounting of how it can be:
...until high school, when in a process as mysterious and unmeasurable as the growth of fingernails, she re-emerged from the general population of girls to become, first a girl and then, the girl. ... Between classes he looked for her, and when she did appear from the throngs in the halls, he trailed behind her, floating in the wake of her smell -- of gardenias and candy -- like a cartoon character following the scent of a freshly baked pie.Clara and Thomas have a son but hope for more. Clara has come so far from her grandparents' farm in D.R., where her idyllic life was shattered when her absent father appeared one day to kidnap her and bring her to America. He promised her mother to Clara, but dumped her with his second wife, as abusive as any Dickensian monster, while he tried to keep a hardware store profitable in the neigborhood.
But Clara hasn't really left her family behind. Her man-crazy, volatile half-sister is leaving NYC in a huff to spend some time back in the D.R. with their real mother, who returned there herself after years in America. Her sister leaves with Clara her own teenage daughter, who is repeating family history by being a pregnant, unwed teen.
Clara's husband, Thomas, like Clara is a librarian. But he's been laid off and has drifted into the ultimate betrayal. Although both Clara and Thomas are in a profession that, in part, helps bring order to chaos, they are not able to do the same for their own lives.
While Clara becomes a professional person, Tito's life has been on hold. He's loyal to his family but the kind of life that means for him is hardly the stereotypical American dream:
Sometimes, when he was sitting down to dinner with his parents or dealing with a tenant complaining about the noisy people upstairs or looking for something to do on a Friday night, he felt stagnant and festering, felt that the very simplicity and lack of change were poisoning him. At such times, he always went back to Clara's disappearance as the root of all his problems, as the missed chance to change his life's trajectory. There had been plenty of other girls since then --- (but) Tito didn't want to settle for a woman and he didn't want to feel settled for.Within that passage is both a brilliant summation of the dead-end lives of immigrants and others living in poverty, especially that which carries on from generation to generation, and the fate of far too many people living in both cities and rural areas. That I can see this fate befalling some of my students in the years to come makes it even more heart-breaking.
But I do realize that how a reader reacts to the situations with Clara and her family, with Thomas and his actions, with Tito and his inability to grow up and move on, may well depend on one's own life experiences, family and culture. Because When Tito Loves Clara is a story of love in so many manifestations, from family to children to the yearning for parents and children, to what is home to each person's heart. And who each reader is makes up how she views life and therefore views who these people are and what happens in their lives. Michaud brilliantly allow each reader to react naturally and whole-heartedly without feeling manipulated into those reactions.
When Tito Loved Clara is a novel that uses beautiful language to convey the ups and downs of real-life situations and that features characters whose lives resonate. Michaud's debut also explores issues surrounding home, its loss, family and cultural assimilation as embodied by these characters and their situations. It is a stunning example of show, not tell, that allows its components to lead to thinking about bigger ideas even while staying true to the call of the storyteller. "What happens next" and "what does it mean" fit perfectly together.