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Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: 'When Tito Loved Clara'

By Jon Michaud
Literary fiction
March 2011
Algonquin Books
ISBN: 978-1565129498

Some novels are built to read at break-neck speed, to rush through page after page, to be gobbled up without pausing to chew well. When Tito Loved Clara, the first novel by The New Yorker librarian Jon Michaud, is not one of them. No, this is a novel to savor, to want to live in for days and days, to learn all about these characters that they will reveal.

Tito is a boy-man who never got over his high school love, Clara. He has lived a life of quiet desperation, helping his building super father and being reliable at the moving company. He is firmly entrenched in his Dominican neighborhood in NYC. He tries to date other women but none move him like that girl. He does reach out to a new tenant with a young son; with her husband out of the country, Tito becomes a babysitter and wishes for more.

While out with the child one day, Tito is seen by Clara. She doesn't approach him but remembers what they meant to each other as the serious girl who loved books found romance with the boy who once caused a swingset accident. Clara has moved out of the neighborhood, married a white man and now lives in New Jersey as a middle class professional. She and Thomas have a son but hope for more. Clara has come so far from her grandparents' farm in D.R., where her idyllic life was shattered when her absent father appeared one day to kidnap her and bring her to America. He promised her mother to Clara, but dumped her with his second wife, as abusive as any Dickensian monster, while he tried to keep a hardware store profitable in the neigborhood.

But Clara hasn't really left her family behind. Her many-crazy, volatile half-sister is leaving NYC in a huff to spend some time back in the D.R. with their real mother, who returned there herself after years in America. Her sister leaves with Clara her own teenage daughter, who is repeating family history by being a pregnant, unwed teen.

Clara's husband, Thomas, like Clara is a librarian. But he's been laid off and has drifted into the ultimate betrayal. Although both Clara and Thomas are in a profession that, in part, helps bring order to chaos, they are not able to do the same for their own lives.

How a reader reacts to the situations with Clara and her family, with Thomas and his actions, with Tito and his inability to grow up and move on, may well depend on one's own life experiences, family and culture. Because When Tito Loved Clara is a story of love in so many manifestations, from family to children to the yearning for parents and children, to what is home to each person's heart. And who each reader is makes up how she views life and therefore views who these people are and what happens in their lives. Michaud brilliantly allow each reader to react naturally and whole-heartedly without feeling manipulated into those reactions.

When Tito Loved Clara is a novel that uses beautiful language to convey the ups and downs of real-life situations and that features characters whose lives resonate. Michaud's debut also explores issues surrounding home, its loss, family and cultural assimilation as embodied by these characters and their situations. It is a stunning example of show, not tell, that allows its components to lead to thinking about bigger ideas even while staying true to the call of the storyteller. "What happens next" and "what does it mean" fit perfectly together.

©2011 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission


  1. This is the first I've heard of When Tito Loved Clara, but it sounds like a book I'd enjoy. I was convinced by the end of your first paragraph... will keep an eye out for it!

  2. Oh, JoAnn, this was such a sweet discovery. I love character-based fiction that treats its characters with dignity. Would love to see what you think if you read it.

  3. This sounds like a wonderful book and by the end of your review I was invested in Clara and Tito, anxious to discover what happens to them! I'm intrigued that this is the debut of Jon Michaud and imagine (with the help of your great review!) the prose to be beautiful and captivating.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this book. It's now on my list & I'm going in search of it :o)

  4. Thank you so much, Amy. Michaud indeed has a beautiful writing voice that adapted well to the straits of each character. I particularly enjoyed the way he treated each of them with such compassion and empathy.