Published by Ballantine Books
Publication date: August 18th 2015
For those of us who loved Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s debut novel, The Language of Flowers, her new novel has been a long time coming. Not actually, it just felt that way. Flowers was one of the first novels I read where the protagonist did bad things and yet, I was drawn to her and to the reasons why she was drawn to doing these things. It is a beautifully satisfying novel so if you haven’t read it you ought to. Now Diffenbaugh is back and in We Never Asked for Wings has expanded her gift for intimate portraits to the family dynamic in modern times. Letty is a bright young woman with a penchant for bad choices like opting out of college, drinking too much, and two unplanned pregnancies. Thankfully, since the birth of her son Alex, fifteen years ago, she has been able to rely on her mother to raise him and her six-year-old daughter Luna. In return, Letty provides the income the family needs to survive by working three jobs. It isn’t until her parents return to Mexico that Letty is faced, for the first time in her adult life, with the realities of being a mother.
Without her mother watching Luna at night Letty has to give up her lucrative nighttime bartending job, forcing the family to economize even further. The physical implications of her parents’ absence are only a small part of their impact. For Luna, her grandmother has been her mother and she lashes out in the only way a six-year-old can with increasing tantrums and bad behavior. For Alex, things are more complicated. He is used to taking care of himself and even his sister but his scientific mind and interest in learning are ignored in his overcrowded, underfunded school. And while Luna is too young to know or care about who her father might be, Alex is desperate to know his. Letty does her best to manage all of these needs but as more of the past comes to light and the present grows darker, she decides to do whatever it takes to get her children the life they deserve.
We Never Asked for Wings is a marvelous story but Diffenbaugh goes beyond mere entertainment by wrapping her plot and characters in the new America. A place where bright students with aspirations for college are stuck in schools that are more about survival than education; where holding down multiple jobs may still mean you have no credit and so can’t move to a safer place. Even where having lived and worked here for decades doesn’t mean that you can’t be sent back to your original country. There is no proselytizing in Wings nor is it a treatise on immigration reform, but like the very best storytellers Diffenbaugh’s prose creates a compelling narrative that even while it is fiction is actually very real.