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Come Together, Fall Apart

Cristina Henriquez


"
  and we are flying like gulls, steady, just above the glossy surface of the pavement. Everyone is laughing bubbles and confetti and the wind laces its fingers through our hair and streams it back and we can’t feel the cool air against our faces because it is so gentle that it cannot be felt.... "
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Reviewed by Liz Prato

Oftentimes, young authors are so eager to shake off signs of their youth that they go too far the opposite direction. They try to be edgy and bleak, and their language gets too big for their stories. Cristina Henríquez avoids these pitfalls with simple, evocative language and everyday characters who, despite all circumstances, maintain a sense of hope. The stories in Come Together, Fall Apart center around the fairly un-extraordinary lives of modern Panamanians: teenagers coming of age, young women working in appliance stores, men who can’t commit. What the characters share is their desire for connection: to each other, and to their changing culture.

Henríquez’s language is rarely fancy, which is not to say lacking grace. Her characters are everyday people with everyday language, but her poetic economy illustrates this doesn’t mean shallow or uninspired. “Memories are thin, watery and fragile like gas rising off the pavement on the hottest days,” she writes in Ashes, the story of a young woman reeling from her mother’s death and her lover’s infidelity.

When Henríquez’s characters dip into fantasy, then the language lifts up. In Drive, the narrator describes a dream where her car transforms into a giant bird: “. . . and we are flying like gulls, steady, just above the glossy surface of the pavement. Everyone is laughing bubbles and confetti and the wind laces its fingers through our hair and streams it back and we can’t feel the cool air against our faces because it is so gentle that it cannot be felt.”

What’s striking about this passage — aside from its dreamy realism — is the consistent use of “we.” Even in the narrator’s vision of freedom, she is not alone. Freedom and connection are not antithetical, but inextricably linked. This is most evident in Mercury, as an American teenager visits her grandparents while her parents divorce back home. She wants desperately to speak Spanish with her grandparents, but finds her grandfather seriously ill and secluded from her. Her attempts to communicate represent not just her need for connection within her family, but also a desire to connect to her Panamanian heritage.

The title novella is the story of a teenage boy in love, set against the backdrop of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. The scene setting is successful, helping readers visualize what it might mean to come of age in a warzone. Unfortunately, Henríquez’s writing is at its loosest and least grounded in the novella, ditching economy and sometimes abandoning her characters’ emotional danger for a history lesson.

Henríquez does a fine job in not stereotyping the men in the lives of her female protagonists. Yes, there are men who are shifty and shiftless, but there are also fathers and boyfriends full of love and imagination. Yet even when they are good men, there is something weightless about them. Mothers provide the anchor in this world, no matter how far the mother-daughter relationship is stretched.

As they navigate love and war and grief and growing up, all of Henríquez’s characters manage to find hope through some power within them. Perhaps that optimistic view seems young or naïve, but these beautiful stories read more like lessons in life.



Liz Prato is a massage therapist in Portland, Oregon. Her fiction and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming in numerous reviews and magazines, including Iron Horse Literary Review, Subtropics, ZYZZYVA, Massage and Bodywork Magazine, Gertrude, and Juked. She’s currently working on a novel about grief, art, sexual identity, and the cosmos.

PublisherRiverhead (Penguin imprint)

Publication Date: 2006

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback & paperback

First collection?: Yes

Author bio:  Cristina Henríquez’s stories have been published in The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and AGNI. She earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She lives with her husband in Chicago.  

Read an interview with Cristina Henriquez


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