BookBrowse Reviews My Heart Underwater by Laurel Fantauzzo

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My Heart Underwater

by Laurel Fantauzzo

My Heart Underwater by Laurel Fantauzzo X
My Heart Underwater by Laurel Fantauzzo
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  • Published:
    Oct 2020, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Catherine M Andronik
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About this Book



After an incident at school, a Filipina-American teenager is sent to stay with family in Manila in this tender young adult novel.

Corazon — Cory — Tagubio is a Filipina-American teenager living with her family in California. She knows she could be a better daughter and a better student at her Catholic high school. But these ordinary concerns are set aside when a new AP World History substitute teacher, Ms. Holden, enters her life, tanned and glowing from surfing, full of stories about European history, attractive to Cory in a way she hasn't felt before. Around the same time, Cory's father has a work-related accident that puts him in a coma, and the doctors are not hopeful. The relationship between Cory and Ms. Holden deepens, and Cory's mother catches them kissing. Before Cory knows it she is on her way to Manila in the Philippines to live with Jun, the older half brother she has never met in person, the child of her father's first marriage. In Manila, she meets her mother's entitled family and the domestic workers who serve them, her much less wealthy father's fallen-from-grace brother, and most importantly, Jun and his friends. Each of these characters widens Cory's perspective on what is important in life, and what real love looks like.

As its title indicates, the novel is framed by water. Cory's relationship with Ms. Holden is centered on the older woman's surfing; their days are spent at the beach, where they fall into what somewhat overprotected Cory sees as love. Later, in Manila, staying overnight in a seaside hostel with Jun and his friends, Cory realizes that, though she has been living on an island for months, she never even thought about the sea surrounding her until now. She remembers childhood days at the beach where her father would point across the ocean and tell her home was that way. Now, she finds herself looking across the Pacific in the opposite direction, feeling at home on either side.

Living in Manila also offers Cory a new perspective on her parents and the reader a greater understanding of wealth disparities in Manila. Cory's mother lived in a rich household complete with servants growing up, but a rebellious streak kept her from being the favored child. The mother Cory has always known is loving, frugal, strong and kind (even in sending Cory to the Philippines), and graciously understanding of her husband's son. She is nothing like Cory's bossy, wealth- and status-conscious aunt, who had been the favorite growing up. Her family has always looked down on Cory's father because of his poor background and his previous marriage, despite his sense of humor, his love of song, and his ability to bring joy into a room. The scenes in which Cory and Jun keep vigil at their father's hospital bedside with Cory's mother show what family is truly about.

The novel is full of rich fragments of life in Manila, from Jollibee restaurant chain takeout to brief conversations in Tagalog. The meanings of these exchanges are usually understandable in context, but a glossary (not present in the digital version reviewed here) would have been welcome. There are also some loose threads at the end of the novel that may leave the reader feeling a bit unsatisfied. However, while the ending is abrupt, it seems to represent the notion that Cory is embarking on a new chapter in her life.

This review first ran in the November 18, 2020 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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