Review: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

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Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people…

In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.

Separated by distance—and Papi’s secrets—the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered.

And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other.

RATING: ☆★☆★

It is hard to describe the space that yawned open in the life of Camino Rios and Yahaira Rios after their father died in a flight crash. It is harder still to describe the truths he left behind, cutting swift and deep, like a knife: Camino and Yahaira are sisters who, for sixteen years, hadn’t known of each other’s existence. Their world too had tipped, and fallen, and the secrets their father held aloft over their heads are seized by gravity. Now it was just the two of them, and the slow, outgoing tide of aftermath.

Camino and Yahaira are both desperately pawing for the truth of their father as they might paw at beach sand in hopes of finding a shell, hunting in the rubble of his life for answers, and trying to find their way to each other across the Rubicon that divided their two worlds.

On the screen, beyond where she can see, I trace her chin with my finger. & for the first time I don’t just feel loss. I don’t feel just a big gaping hole at everything my father’s absence has swallowed. Look at what it’s spit out & offered. Look at who it’s given me.

There’s no doubt that Acevedo is one of the brightest literary talents around.

Tender, patient and raw as a wound, “Clap When You Land” burrows deep under its reader’s skin while at the same time nudging them into inhabiting the perspective of its characters. The author possesses a unique musicality for language—her writing buoys and soothes at once, and I wanted nothing more than to breathe the words in until they ached inside my chest, to nestle into the story’s steady warmth like a well-worn sweater. But for all the novel’s poetry and lyricism, Acevedo never forgets to tell a gripping tale.

There’s a chafed, bruised feeling to this book, and something in me splintered while reading it. “Clap When You Land” is a novel that explores the wrenching depths of what it feels like to lose something and be unable to move on, not only a literal person, but also a way of life. This is Cami and Yaya’s story of weary grief and visceral longing—the novel alternating between their voices—but you are in there too, and that makes their loss your loss, the ache your ache, the anger you anger, and the secrets their father had sealed away inside him like a box with another box inside it and another inside something you too must process and come to terms with yourself. All of it burgeoning within you with every turn of the page, welling up like tears. And that owes in huge part to the author’s deft, tender characterizations, and the way she artfully infuses her novel with great empathy—offering the reader so many questions, but not giving any direct or easy answers.

Yaya and Cami’s father had been the life of their small universe, and without him their world felt huge and empty, like a shipwreck hull. They loved him, and they mourned him, but they also wondered if they could ever really forgive him. In the fraying cobwebs of their memories, the side of their father that they saw was polished to such a high gloss of perfection—the loving, attentive father—but it is now vying with this newly revealed side of him—the terrible husband, the selfish man—and the two are clashing like swords. Does one side cancel out the other? Will Cami and Yaya ever be able to think of him and see only the word “father” and not the things he left behind?

This is the “gift and curse” both Yahaira and Camino are wrestling with throughout the story. Camino and Yahaira didn’t have to articulate the curious shape of their grief because they could see it mirrored in each other’s eyes. Cami, on the one hand, is grateful, but she can’t help but think a little bit secretly—and resentfully—in her heart that life for Yahaira has been as easy as pulling strings: Yahaira, after all, got to live with their father nine months a year in their New York apartment, while Cami is the one he left behind, fighting off the unwanted advances of an older neighbor who refused to take no for an answer. Yahaira, on the other hand, can see the sadness in Cami’s anger, the guardedness of grief, and she’s grappling with her own relationship to her mother, both of them filled with a sadness that she could not articulate without fracturing their relationship.

As for other thematic notes, the novel probes achingly at the question of identity, what it means to grow up in a world you felt only halfway inside of, and to question your claim to your parents’ roots when you’ve never set foot in their world. The novel cracks open all that wordless agony like an egg and leaks out the words: “Can you be from a place you have never been? You can find the island stamped all over me, but what would the island find if I was there? Can you claim a home that does not know you, much less claim you as its own?” The author also skillfully articulates how different tragedies are portrayed in the media, especially the ones that touch a marginalized community, and how those stories tend to be quickly robbed of their sharp edges, easily dismissed even while those communities are still wrestling with the loss.

That said, Acevedo tempers the sting of that harsh reality with the beauty of hope in a way that is deeply affecting. Yahaira and Camino’s feelings are twins, even if they are not, and the ravine between them gets smaller enough to close with every page. There’s also so much sapphic tenderness nestled into this story, and Yahaira and Dre’s relationship filled me with so much warmth.

I tell her that when we land some people on the plane might clap. She turns to me with an eyebrow raised. I imagine it’s kind of giving thanks. Of all the ways it could end it ends not with us in the sky or the water, but together on solid earth safely grounded.

So much about this novel tugged at my heartstrings, and I highly recommend you pick it up!

5 thoughts on “Review: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

  1. I absolutely love your reviews and this one is especially beautiful! Another book to add to my TBR list! 🙂


  2. i’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed this – it’s been on my tbr for the longest time and i want to read it even more after your review!! the quotes you mentioned are absolutely beautiful, i’ve heard only good things about Elizabeth Acevedo’s books and i need to read them all asap.

    every time i read one of your reviews i just have to stop and marvel at your stunning way with words; you always write the most beautiful reviews, and i loved reading one!! ❤


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