Life, Death, and Family: The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami

Driss, a Moroccan immigrant, is killed in a hit and run while walking to his car after working at the diner he owns in the Mojave Desert. His daughter, Nora, a musician living in Oakland, returns home to bury her father and to push police to find the person responsible. His other daughter, Salma, seethes with resentment at Nora for having been their father’s favored daughter. His wife, Maryam, goes about the business of grieving and managing her two daughters as they close out Driss’ accounts, and does her best to shield her daughters from painful family secrets. Coleman, the police officer assigned to the case, investigates and worries about her own child. And Jeremy, a high school friend of Nora’s and a police officer, struggles to cope with PTSD from a tour in Afghanistan (both his PTSD and that of a friend whose life is imploding).

The Other Americans begins with Nora and grows from there, steadily adding characters and points of view. Each character has knowledge or perspective the others don’t, shading the story and making it deeper. In this sense, The Other Americans unfolds like a fan, spreading out to reveal more of itself. Like a fan, Lalami’s writing is beautiful and exists for a purpose.

I really enjoyed going through this novel and discovering how each character fit, how it prized character and story over gimmicks like shock or “gotcha” twists. Imagine my sincere disappointment, then, that the last fifty pages loses the plot.

Throughout the narrative, Lalami fits each chapter together like a puzzle piece–one deftly leading into the next. Suddenly, without warning, she jumps in time. I felt disoriented–which can be a good sensation for a writer to elicit, but in this case it felt unnecessary, purposeless. I wanted the details that were glossed over. At least one storyline is dropped completely and without resolution; others fade in an unsatisfying way. Lalami goes for precisely the “gotcha” twist I had earlier congratulated her for not indulging in. At lunch one day, I had even said to my husband “you know, a lesser book would have it turn out that _____.” Imagine how silly I felt when that ended up being exactly where Lalami had been going the whole time.

Had the 2/3 of The Other Americans leading up to all this been weaker, I would write it off completely. But I was so captivated by the story that I still eagerly took in those final pages, and I still walked away feeling respect for what Lalami accomplished here. Yes, I wish it had stuck the landing, but on the whole I feel good about this reading experience.

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
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