Saturday, 15 October 2011

Review: Tell Us We're Home

Title: Tell Us We're Home
Author: Marina Budhos
Category/Genre/Themes: Middle Grade, Contemporary, Friendship, Immigration
Publisher: Atheneum Books

Author's Website:

Summary: Jaya, Maria, and Lola are just like the other eighth-grade girls in the wealthy suburb of Meadowbrook, New Jersey. They want to go to the spring dance, they love spending time with their best friends after school, sharing frapp├ęs and complaining about the other kids. But there’s one big difference: all three are daughters of maids and nannies. And they go to school with the very same kids whose families their mothers work for. (taken from the author's website)

First Line: Meadowbrook, New Jersey, looks like it's right out of an old-time postcard.

The Skinny: Budhos' next book in the MG market reveals her full mastery of the pen, outshining her MG debut Ask Us No Questions by a landslide. Some other authors who take a more ambitious storytelling angle flounder at the unravelling of too many story threads. Budhos, on the other hand, flourishes with the added textures to her story. Filled with moments of kindness, love, heartbreak, and fear, it's message of friends, family, and home shine like a blaze against a backdrop of a world that doesn't want them.

The Review: Have you ever read a book so brilliant that when pressed to talk about it, you fumble because you don't even know where to start? Tell Us We're Home is that book for me. I had to single out and pick out one angle (the narrative, for those curious) as my theme of this review in order to best show my critique of the book over all, but I'd love to in the near future tackle its message of friendship and belonging, and perhaps even just various posts dedicated to the cast, especially Lola, whose subplot I found myself most attached to at the end of the day. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

After having read Budhos' MG debut Ask Me No Questions, I knew that I wanted to keep an eye out for works by Marina Budhos. While not my favourite book, there was something in the quality of the writing that drew me in, mesmerizing and satisfying all at once. Having read Tell Us We're Home, Budhos has now become a must-read author for me, one of those authors whom I'd gladly pre-order any new releases. I connected deeply with this novel, so much so that there were moments too painful to bear, moments wherein I had to stop and close my eyes, because it hit too close to home. I loved it, loved this book, and I basically think it is perfect in all ways.

But of course all this gushing is not being particularly specific about why I love this book so much, so I'll try to break it down. I have read plenty of reviews for this novel that criticized the narration style, which besides leaves me thinking in my brain that this kind of talk is practically blasphemous, I also just downright disagree. I will say it plain: I think the narration was brilliant and perfect. It's a third person omnipresent narration, and I know this type of narration gets a lot of flak because it tells more than shows, but there's a difference between not liking a narration style and saying an author used this narration style ineffectively. For me, Budhos' use of third person omnipresent called to mind the narrative style of fairy tales, dreamy and wispy with enough distance for imagination and yet reining in to illuminate key moments that will strike you in the heart. There was something magical about the way she described the town of Meadowbrook, this town the three girls wanted to be a part of. The descriptions of the town reached various points of a dreamlike quality, a picture of suburban haven. This is juxtaposed by the very ways in which this town is unwelcoming to those they deem strangers, and it creates a feel a world wherein you're dreaming in a cold reality, where things are going horribly wrong but the air around you is so beautiful you don't want to give it up. This dreamlike quality gives this novel that hint of warmth and hope, and it's so important, to have immigrant stories like this, one that doesn't gloss over reality and yet keeps that hope in place, permeated throughout the whole storyline.

[To address this point that I consistently see in reviews more specifically, no, this novel doesn't allow for us to really “get inside the character's minds” the way a first person narration does. This is because 1) this is NOT a first person narration and 2) this is not the strength of a third person omnipresent narration. What third person omnipresent can do is give distance, going in and out of character's heads so we can have flashes of clarity of the situation from both sides, from a more distant view of the town to a more intimate one with a flash of insight from the cast. And this, Budhos has achieved in her narrative with a deft hand and great skill of a master storyteller. Honestly, I felt like this criticism was ingenuous and far more reflective of a reviewer's personal taste than a reflection of Budhos' writing itself. (Caveat: nothing WRONG with liking 1st person narration over 3rd person. I get it, I love 1st person narration too, but I just wanted to highlight that to say so in a review is a preference au lieu of a critique, and I just, I don't think it's fair every time I see people stating that they thought the narrative was “weak” and followed this statement with the whole inside-the-mind, 1st person argument. If I'm this defensive, it's because I love this book so much.) ]

It is rare for me to find a MG or YA novel that effectively brings a setting to life, so Budhos' depiction of Meadowbrook was like finding an oasis in a desert. I was reminded sharply of a suburban town I went to school for a couple of years, with people with bigger houses and higher income scales. And I loved our three main protagonists. I absolutely love seeing true friendship between girls in fiction, partly for its rarity quality (Media will have people believe that girls can't be true friends to each other without backstabby nonsense or only being frenemies, waiting to betray at the slightest weakness. The media is wrong.) and mostly for how sweet it is, how they work together and how they disagree and the ways they make up. I enjoyed the three-way perspectives of this novel as well, because not only do we get to see more than one character grow, we get to see how their interactions with each other and the people around them change them and make them grow. Here, the story is less tight because the premise lies in a fallout of a friendship as oppose to a bonding. The rhythm of the book is set to three different tunes, and yet, yet, Budhos' manages to weave them back together again, and their friendship becomes all the stronger for it, for the ways they've grown. I felt like the third person omnipresent style proves to be most effective and shows its strength in the contribution of literary styles in this particular novel because Budhos' writing voice gives a distinctive tone to the story, allowing it to sound like it comes from one source instead of a smattering of three subplots mashed together.

There is just so much this book has to offer, its portraits of friends and growing up and coming into their skin and ties with family and that need of belonging. Budhos' also offers a great critique on meritocracy, and all of this without ever lecturing. I know “problem novels” often get shafted for “being too serious” or for only appealing to a niche group, and while I hate fighting this wrong-headed idea over and over, I'd just like to reiterate that I believe that this book can be loved by all. Who doesn't love a story of the tenuous ties of friendship being tested? Who doesn't ever wonder about where they do and don't belong? And I refuse to believe that just because the girls are part of a “marginalized group” in today's society makes their story less “appealing” or worth reading.

(Some) Favourite Passages:

(Unfortunately I copied down these quotes without page numbers before I returned the book to the library. Page numbers will be added in the future.)

How do you feel like you belong? Do you have to live in a place for hundreds of years, your pale skin and wispy hair the same as those who came before? Do you need to know that the ground is sure beneath you?


Then Jaya watched as her father had come up from behind and put his arms around his wife; she rested her cheek on the crook of his arm. Her mother's face became a sweet, blurred oval. For the first time Jaya understood that this was what love could do: It could change your inner shape, make you curve to another.

The Verdict: MUST READ. READ IT NOW. I don't know how to make my feelings about this book clearer than this. Quite possibly my favourite book of the year.

The Title&Cover Package: Beautiful backdrop, the cool colours contrasting well with the vibrant colour of the girl's skirt. And the title is absolutely perfect in every way. I just, argh, no words to describe how much I love this book, it's beautiful, everything about it is beautiful, it's a book that belongs on bookshelves and will look good in it.

Review Links:
Writing with a broken tusk 
Everyday Intensity 
The Library Lurker 


  1. Touche! I don't feel like going back to re-read my review but I'm fairly certian I give this a 4/5 in part due to narration woes but you made me feel so guilty (in the best of ways xD)

    I don't like barefeet but I like this cover better than the US hardcover...