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‘How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water’ is an ode to human connection

There is a Spanish word for venting one’s feelings, desahogar, which, when translated, literally means “to un-drown.” To pour one’s heart out. To cry until there is no need to cry anymore.

In Angie Cruz’s fourth novel, “How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water,” an interviewer with an employment assistance program in New York asks protagonist Cara Romero to say something about herself. What follows feels, at first, like an un-drowning.

Cara’s account begins with her move to the United States as a young mother from the Dominican Republic, “because my husband wanted to kill me.” What emerges later is that her husband had not touched Cara in two years, turning to other women instead, but when Cara ceded to the tenderness of another man, the husband threatened to “kill me to end the humiliation he felt.”

The story, told in Cara’s unfailingly frank, sometimes hilarious, voice, quickly expands like the bellows of an accordion to release chords of friendship, community and, occasionally, lust, amid the financial stresses, discrimination and personal divisions faced by Cara, her family and friends in their rapidly gentrifying Washington Heights neighborhood.

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The structure of the novel is built around 12 interview sessions designed to assess Cara’s job readiness and eligibility for continued unemployment benefits. She fills each meeting with stories of her life’s challenges, including her arrival in New York 26 years earlier, her struggle to support her son and siblings, and the sudden loss of her steady factory job to an overseas facility.

Cara punctuates her anecdotes with clear-eyed observations about contradictions and injustices in the country where she has spent most of her adult life, even as she studies to become a U.S. citizen.

“It will not be easy to say I am American, because when someone says American they don’t imagine me,” Cara tells the government contractor.

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Cara, interviewed in the midst of the global economic downturn in 2009, sees through her landlord’s ploys to drive longtime tenants from their Washington Heights apartment building in favor of higher-paying newcomers. Despite her own joblessness, she feels deeply for the lawyer with children who, according to a news report, takes a job at a fast-food restaurant, because he cannot find work in his own field. Says Cara, “Now I see that this country is like that fisherman with fast hands on the beach who shows you the big fat fish, but when he cooks, he says it shrink.”

Cara’s deepest disappointments and most fervent hopes are tied to her puzzling relationships with her son, Fernando, who makes a conscious decision to disappear from her life, and her “unfeeling” sister, Ángela, who Cara believes is so taken with upward mobility that she does not appreciate the sacrifices Cara has made for her. But Cara is not perfect, and as the story moves forward, her own accounts reveal some of the hows and whys behind the personal divisions that trouble her so.

Through Cara’s memorable voice, images of other characters emerge, including the interviewer, a younger Dominican American who speaks little Spanish and who must somehow compile a list of Cara’s job skills from her meandering stories: stories of how Cara cooks and cleans for la Vieja Caridad, an elderly neighbor, after the woman’s partner dies; of how she babysits for her nephews and nieces, despite criticism of her methods; of how she keeps an eye on the comings and goings in her building with her envious but loyal friend Lulú, the two of them tuning a television to the lobby’s security camera; and of Alicia the Psychic, who might be an online scammer, or maybe not.

Cruz drew critical acclaim with her previous novel “Dominicana,” a finalist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a coming-of-age story centered around a Dominican teenage bride who immigrates to New York. With “How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water,” Cruz once again offers a fresh glimpse of immigration, womanhood, aspiration and gentrification, but the first-person gaze of the protagonist here takes on a more confessional, stream-of-consciousness tone.

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“How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water” is an engaging read, one that invites the reader to look at the world as 56-year-old Cara does, with a mixture of harsh assessment, surprising naivete and, ultimately, a deep current of tenderness. The book also resounds with the sense that Cara loves and believes in herself, despite all she has gone through. In one of the story’s lighter moments, referring to her appearance, Cara says, “I know I was born with sugar in my pockets.” When asked in an employment questionnaire whether she can drive, she doesn’t say no. Instead, she says: No problem, she can learn.

It might seem superficial to call this a feel-good tale, yet Cara is a character to love. This is as much a story about Cara’s interior life and the human connections she makes as it is about her external disenfranchisement as an immigrant woman with limited financial and educational resources. “How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water” delivers a sense of the enduring worth of relationships, life experiences and determination as currencies in a difficult world.

Charmaine Wilkerson is the author of “Black Cake.”

How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water

By Angie Cruz

Flatiron. 208 pp. $27.99

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