We Never Asked for Wings

We Never Asked for Wings

4.2 13
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
     
 

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From the beloved New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers comes her much-anticipated new novel about young love, hard choices, and hope against all odds.
 
For fourteen years, Letty Espinosa has worked three jobs around San Francisco to make ends meet while her mother raised her children—Alex, fifteen, and Luna,

Overview

From the beloved New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers comes her much-anticipated new novel about young love, hard choices, and hope against all odds.
 
For fourteen years, Letty Espinosa has worked three jobs around San Francisco to make ends meet while her mother raised her children—Alex, fifteen, and Luna, just six—in their tiny apartment on a forgotten spit of wetlands near the bay. But now Letty’s parents are returning to Mexico, and Letty must step up and become a mother for the first time in her life.
 
Navigating this new terrain is challenging for Letty, especially as Luna desperately misses her grandparents and Alex, who is falling in love with a classmate, is unwilling to give his mother a chance. Letty comes up with a plan to help the family escape the dangerous neighborhood and heartbreaking injustice that have marked their lives, but one wrong move could jeopardize everything she’s worked for and her family’s fragile hopes for the future.
 
Vanessa Diffenbaugh blends gorgeous prose with compelling themes of motherhood, undocumented immigration, and the American Dream in a powerful and prescient story about family.

Praise for We Never Asked for Wings
 
“Deftly blends family conflict with reassurance: Wings is like Parenthood with class and immigration issues added for gravitas.”People (Book of the Week)
 
“This poignant story will stay in readers’ hearts long after the last page. . . . Diffenbaugh weaves in the plight of undocumented immigrants to her tale of first- and second-generation Americans struggling to make their way in America. Moving without being maudlin, this story avoids the stereotypes in its stark portrayal of mothers who just want the best for their children.”RT Book Reviews (Top Pick)
 
“Diffenbaugh is a storyteller of the highest order: her simple but poetic prose makes even this most classically American story sing with a special kind of vulnerable beauty.”Bustle
 
“[A] gripping, heartfelt exploration of a mother’s love, resilience and redemption.”Family Circle
 
“Satisfying storytelling . . . Diffenbaugh delivers a heartwarming journey that mixes redemption and optimistic insight [and] confirms her gift for creating shrewd, sympathetic charmers.”Kirkus Reviews

“I was hooked from the first breathtaking pages of We Never Asked for Wings, caring about this exquisitely vulnerable family, hoping right along with them on every page that each heart-rending, impossible choice would lead them somewhere better together.”—Lisa Genova, New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice
 
“Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s We Never Asked for Wings propels us into a mother’s heart as she and her family travel down a rocky path to understanding and forgiveness. With breathtaking imagery and lyrical prose, Diffenbaugh makes Letty’s growth from a troubled young mother to a responsible woman who learns to put her children first, but also allows herself the possibility of love, entirely believable. Hers is a hard-won victory you will cheer even as you wish this graceful, moving book would never end.”—Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Deftly blends family conflict with reassurance: Wings is like Parenthood with class and immigration issues added for gravitas.”People (Book of the Week)
 
“This poignant story will stay in readers’ hearts long after the last page. . . . [Vanessa] Diffenbaugh weaves in the plight of undocumented immigrants to her tale of first- and second-generation Americans struggling to make their way in America. Moving without being maudlin, this story avoids the stereotypes in its stark portrayal of mothers who just want the best for their children.”RT Book Reviews (Top Pick)
 
“Diffenbaugh is a storyteller of the highest order: her simple but poetic prose makes even this most classically American story sing with a special kind of vulnerable beauty.”Bustle
 
“[A] gripping, heartfelt exploration of a mother’s love, resilience and redemption.”Family Circle
 
“Satisfying storytelling . . . Diffenbaugh delivers a heartwarming journey that mixes redemption and optimistic insight [and] confirms her gift for creating shrewd, sympathetic charmers.”Kirkus Reviews

“I was hooked from the first breathtaking pages of We Never Asked for Wings, caring about this exquisitely vulnerable family, hoping right along with them on every page that each heart-rending, impossible choice would lead them somewhere better together.”—Lisa Genova, New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice
 
“Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s We Never Asked for Wings propels us into a mother’s heart as she and her family travel down a rocky path to understanding and forgiveness. With breathtaking imagery and lyrical prose, Diffenbaugh makes Letty’s growth from a troubled young mother to a responsible woman who learns to put her children first, but also allows herself the possibility of love, entirely believable. Hers is a hard-won victory you will cheer even as you wish this graceful, moving book would never end.”—Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife

Library Journal
08/01/2015
Diffenbaugh's second novel (after the best-selling The Language of Flowers) is the immigrant story of Letty Espinoza, a single mother who hasn't had to act like a mother a day in her life. Her two children, Alex and Luna, have been faithfully cared for by Letty's mother, up until she abandons them in the middle of the night to seek out her husband in Mexico. Distraught, Letty leaves the children unattended just as abruptly to drunkenly drive after her mother in a fruitless effort to get her to return. Return she doesn't, and Letty is forced to confront parenthood under the umbrella of poverty and illegal immigration. VERDICT In this novel about hope and working toward a better life despite self-placed obstacles, Letty isn't an overtly likable character, which could be a problem for some readers, but her path is a brave one. Fans of the author's first book won't be disappointed. [See Prepub Alert, 3/30/15.]—Mara Dabrishus, Ursuline Coll. Lib., Pepper Pike, OH
Kirkus Reviews
2015-06-04
Question: What kind of parent leaves her two children home alone while she takes off in pursuit of her own mother, who's heading back to Mexico?Answer: A parent like Letty Espinosa, the troubled heroine of Diffenbaugh's (The Language of Flowers, 2011) second novel, who suddenly finds herself flying solo and unready to cope. Love and upbringing, the core themes of Diffenbaugh's bestselling debut, also drive her tightly constructed new novel, which uses its compelling opening to establish Letty's fecklessness, her 14-year-old son Alex's prematurely grown-up sense of responsibility, and 6-year-old daughter Luna's needs. Without her own parents, who have been doing all the child care up till now but whose return to Mexico turns out to be permanent, single mother Letty is going to have to juggle the children, work, and housekeeping by herself for the first time, and to start with, it doesn't go well. But Letty's doubts give way to hope as she switches the children to a better school in San Francisco (admittedly, using a false address) and learns from helpful colleague Rick how to mix cocktails that increase her bartending tips. Letty's story is paralleled with Alex's: he's a clever teenager struggling to avoid his mother's mistakes while falling for classmate Yesenia and coming to know the father Letty hid from him his whole life. With its hardscrabble setting and undocumented characters, Diffenbaugh's latest is less overtly romantic than her first; it's strong on social issues but sometimes dragged down by a protagonist whose tendency toward self-criticism can be tiring. The tidy plot and satisfying storytelling are winning, though, and ultimately Diffenbaugh delivers a heartwarming journey that mixes redemption and optimistic insight in equal measure. Less schematic and more down to earth than her first novel, Diffenbaugh's latest confirms her gift for creating shrewd, sympathetic charmers.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780553392333
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
04/05/2016
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
50,107
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

1 The edge of the mattress dipped as Alex sat down. Luna was curled into a ball, doing that thing she did when she wanted someone to believe she was still asleep: eyes scrunched too tightly closed, lips pulled down at the corners because Alex had told her once that she smiled when she faked sleep, so now she overcorrected. Wisps of long black hair had escaped her braids and tangled around her gold earrings; a smudge of drool flaked white off her cheek. Checking to see who was there, she squinted at Alex through crusted eyelashes and then snapped her eyes shut again. Where she’d recently lost her two front teeth, her gums were swollen and red.

How could he possibly tell her?

She was only six. Only six and tiny too—­even with their grandmother cooking constantly, there were weeks she lost weight instead of gaining it, and she didn’t have any to lose. What would he feed her? He felt again the despair washing over him, as it had when he’d first woken up and read the letter; with puffed cheeks, he held his breath until it passed. Everything is going to be fine, he told himself. Everything is going to be just fine. He was fourteen years old, fifteen in a month. He’d been watching his grandmother long enough to know what to do. But it wouldn’t be easy. Luna wasn’t the kind of kid who just listened. Getting her to do anything took extensive negotiation, distraction, and occasionally—­even with his grandmother—­bribery.

Alex decided to skip straight to the bribery.

“Too bad Luna’s not awake, because I’m about to have donuts for breakfast.”

She pressed her face into the pillow to muffle a squeal and clamped her hands over her ears as if this might prevent their grandmother from hearing. It was breaking three rules, at least: (1) Stopping anywhere on the way to school, (2) Eating sugar before noon, and (3) Eating donuts, ever.

“Don’t worry, she isn’t here.”

Luna peeled away from the pillow. Her brown eyes studied Alex, looking for clues as to how she should feel about this unfamiliar state of being. “Where is she?”

He forced himself to smile. “Mom took her to get Grandpa.”

“They found him?”

Alex paused, then moved his head in a kind of circle, a motion that Luna would interpret as a yes but that was ambiguous enough to get Alex off if he was ever questioned for lying at the gates of heaven. He’d hidden his grandmother’s letter behind the tip jar his mother kept in the kitchen cabinet, which he’d hoped would be full (she’d taken most of the money, though, leaving only three inches of coins at the bottom of the jar) and estimated the time it would take for them to return by the miles to Oro de Hidalgo and back, calculated at seventy miles an hour. Best case scenario: “They’ll be back on Friday.”

Luna was quiet, and for a minute Alex thought she was worrying, as he was, about how his mother would get his grandparents, Maria Elena and Enrique, back across the border—­or whether they would get back at all. But then she asked what day it was.

“Tuesday.”

She hummed the days of the week to the tune of “Clementine” and counted on her fingers. “Three days.”

“Exactly. Three days of eating whatever we want and staying after school with our friends.”

They didn’t have any friends; Luna did not look convinced.

He squeezed her feet through the blankets, trying to think of something to comfort her. “We’ve been alone before, remember?”

She nodded, fear in her eyes for the first time, and he realized too late that it was the wrong thing to say. They’d both gotten stomachaches from the potatoes he’d half-­baked, and she’d cried, inconsolably, the whole night through. That time, Maria Elena hadn’t meant to leave them alone. She and Enrique had gone out of town and hired a babysitter, but the girl got sick and left, and even though they’d called Letty in a panic, she hadn’t come home until six o’clock in the morning.

“I’m older now,” he said and then, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say: “Sprinkles?”

Luna studied him. “Are we really going to get donuts?”

“If you ever get out of bed, we are.” She reached out, and he pulled her up and set her on the floor. “Need help?”

“Nana said I could wear my heart dress. She said she’d wash it.”

“I don’t know where it is.”

“But she said.”

It was exactly the kind of conversation that could spiral into hysteria; the recovery would take half the morning. “Hold on.”

He looked in the closet, where his grandmother hung the clothes she’d ironed, and then in the kitchen sink, where she soaked things overnight; finally, he found it on the drying rack in the stairwell, stretched flat on top of a towel.

“It’s wet,” Luna said when he handed it to her.

“So wear it wet, or wear something dry.”

“But I want to wear this. And I don’t want it to be wet.”

She held her dress by the sleeves and swung it around in a circle. The material flew just inches from his face. He reached out and grabbed it.

“Stop that. Come here.” From her dresser he found leggings and a long-­sleeved shirt, and dressed her in both before pulling the damp dress over her head. “You can’t even tell it’s wet.”

Luna wrinkled her nose. “But why are we even going to school?” she asked. “Please, please, please, can we stay home and watch TV?”

“No way,” Alex said. They were so different, he and his sister, that sometimes he couldn’t believe they were even related. But then, Alex was different from just about everyone he’d ever met. While the other eighth graders in his class read banned magazines behind textbooks and painted their nails under their desks and avoided answering questions, Alex came to school every day armed with some strange fact to shock or impress his teacher. Most of these facts he got from his grandfather, the only person he knew who was like him. Enrique could recite the name of every bird that traveled the Pacific Flyway in alphabetical order, a skill he’d learned from his own father, and his grandfather before that. Alex had been able to do it for as long as he could remember.

Grabbing his clothes from the closet, he went to the bathroom to get dressed. Behind the locked door he pulled on the white shirt his grandmother had ironed. The kids at Cesar Chavez called him “Newsman” because of his shirts, but Alex knew he looked nothing like a television reporter. He was too skinny, for one, and his nose had grown before the rest of his face. But the real problem with Alex’s appearance was his hair: a wavy, almost-­blond mop he assumed he’d inherited from his father. Alex had never seen him, but in a shoe box under Letty’s bed was a sealed envelope addressed to Wes Riley, 536 Elm Street, Mission Hills, California. When he’d searched the name on his school computer, Alex had found images of a man who looked almost exactly like him—­blue eyes, milky skin, and a square jaw. In every photograph he wore scrubs and held a different dark-­skinned baby. The captions read “Mumbai,” “Malawi,” “Guatemala City.” He’d been given some kind of award in 2005, but the article about it was written in an African language Alex didn’t recognize and couldn’t understand.

But of all the information he’d gathered about his father, the address was the thing that most captivated him. It was just over the freeway. For years, Alex had imagined walking past the house, his father recognizing him from the window and rushing out. He’d never gotten far enough from Maria Elena’s watchful eye to venture there alone, though, and he’d never summoned the courage to ask his mother about the man or the circumstances of his birth—­mostly because he’d never summoned the courage to ask his mother about anything at all.

He brushed his teeth quickly as Luna pounded on the door.

“Alex! Let me in.”

***

Maria Elena had packed their lunches for the week and stacked them on the top shelf of the refrigerator, all labeled. alex: tuesday, luna: tuesday, and behind those the Wednesdays, the Thursdays, and the Fridays. Below their lunches were the remnants of every meal their grandmother had made for the last two weeks, stored and dated and—­Alex could imagine the smell without cracking open the lids—­many edging toward decay. He pulled out the Tuesday lunches and stuffed them in their backpacks, checking to see that their tennis shoes were still at the bottoms of the bags, where they belonged.

From the bathroom, he heard the toilet flush and the faucet turn on and off, and then Luna stood in the doorway. Water dripped onto her forehead, from where she’d slicked the loose hair back into her braids. If her teacher ever noticed anything, she would notice that Luna’s hair had not been rebraided that morning for the very first time all year. But Luna was the least of her teacher’s problems—­she probably wouldn’t even look at her the entire day.

Fishing through the tip jar, Alex extracted a stack of quarters and stepped into his rain boots. He handed Luna hers: knee-­high with pink polka dots. They were the one item of clothing necessary to survive life at the Landing, and the one thing his grandmother did not buy generic. Luna pulled them on.

“It’s still there, did you see?”

“What is?”

She gestured for him to follow. In their grandparents’ room, the bed was made as it always was, the quilt pulled tight and square, but he saw immediately that things were different. Only a nail remained where a small cross had hung over the bed; the top of his grandmother’s dresser was empty of photographs and glistened with some kind of polish. Alex imagined her dusting while she packed. Luna pulled him across the room to where his grandfather’s workbench sat under the window, his most recent project spread out exactly as he’d left it.

For six months, their grandfather had been focused on a single feather mosaic, a landscape of a rural village in Mexico, with small stucco houses tilting in imperfect rows and a shawl-­wrapped woman looking up at a full moon. It was only the profile of the woman, and she was young, but Alex could tell it was his grandmother. It was always his grandmother. The feather work was so fine that from a few feet away it could be mistaken for an oil painting, each feather a single stroke, but instead the mosaic was created entirely of naturally occurring feathers stuck into a thin layer of campeche wax. The smell of wax hung heavy in the air, and it made him miss his grandfather intensely: the way he patted his thighs every time Alex stepped into the room, even after Alex grew too big to sit in his lap; the way he stopped everything to stand up and look outside, narrating the natural world for his grandson, who remembered every word he said.

Enrique had been gone for six weeks, returning to Mexico to be with his dying mother, and now Maria Elena and Letty were gone too. Alex moved to the window and looked out at the empty landscape.

They were completely alone.

More alone than seemed reasonable, given that they stood less than twenty miles south of San Francisco. Most of the time he didn’t notice the isolation, or else he tried to think about only the good things: the birds, the view, the water. But every once in a while it hit him. Where was civilization? Outside, Mile Road stretched through the empty marsh, from Highway 101 to the edge of the bay, ending at the three squat buildings of Eden’s Landing: Building A, painted an industrial peachy brown; Building B, half a shade darker of the same dull color; and Building C, closest to the water and painted a faded robin’s-­egg blue. A barbed-­wire fence separated the Landing from the San Francisco International Airport to the north; nothing but a stretch of ever-­shifting wetlands separated it from the bankrupt blight of Bayshore to the south. There were other towns nearby, nice ones like Hillsborough and Burlingame and San Mateo, but the expansion of the 101 freeway had cut off the Landing and Bayshore from the rest of the peninsula. Alex could see Mission Hills, the most affluent of the suburbs, directly across the freeway from where he stood—­but it felt like a world away.

“He’ll come back. Won’t he?” Luna asked, interrupting his thoughts. She was studying her grandfather’s mosaic. In a ring around the full moon the wax showed through, chocolate-­colored and sticky; beside it, blue-­black feathers poked from the top of a labeled envelope as if waiting for his return.

“Of course he will,” Alex said.

But he wasn’t sure.

Just before his grandfather left, Alex had complained that they didn’t have even one piece of Enrique’s work. He’d been sitting beside him at his workbench, as he did every day after school, separating the striped from the solid feathers of a marsh wren. Enrique had nodded solemnly but hadn’t said anything, and now he was gone.

Perhaps he’d left the mosaic for them on purpose, Alex thought: a silent apology for his sudden flight.

Meet the Author

Vanessa Diffenbaugh is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Language of Flowers, which was translated into more than forty languages. A mother of four, she lives with her husband in Monterey, California. In addition to being a writer, Vanessa Diffenbaugh is a passionate foster care advocate and sits on the board of Youth Villages, where she supports their mission to radically improve outcomes for America’s most vulnerable children and families.

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We Never Asked for Wings 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Diffenbaugh's second novel was another heart-rending family saga. Well done!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow! I'm really glad you finished it. Fantastic. I couldn't put it down. Loved both of your books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although I normally do not read contemporary fiction, once I started this novel, I could not put it down. Well developed characters, could feel what each one was going through. I am a bookseller and have recommended this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
PagesofComfort More than 1 year ago
I LOVED this book! I thought it was so, so good! I read Diffenbaugh's first book, The Language of Flowers, earlier this year for my book club and fell in love with Diffenbaugh's writing style. That book was so original and full of emotions; I knew I needed to get her next book. When I started reading We Never Asked for Wings, I was immediately hooked. I finished it in three days while traveling to and from Chicago for the weekend. I never wanted to put this book down. Letty is a young mother of two children; she got pregnant at 17 and wasn't ready for motherhood. As a result, her mother raised her two children until one day, her mother and father leave California to return to Mexico. Letty's forced to grow up and start caring for her children. It definitely isn't smooth sailing and they have a lot of issues. But what I loved so much was watching as Letty grew up, matured, and became the mother that her children needed. It's a lot of trial and error with Letty, her son Alex, and her daughter Luna. Alex is a young, high school kid trying to find his way in the world, and Luna is a spunky 6 year old who loves her mother unconditionally. Things don't go perfect, but they are a family and learn to work things out together. This is another really great book by Diffenbaugh; so original and thought-provoking. I really loved Letty and Alex as characters and I couldn't wait to keep reading their story. I wish it didn't have to end! I know this book was just released, but I seriously can't wait until Diffenbaugh writes something else! She's easily a favorite author of mine! pagesofcomfort.blogspot.com
Sandy5 More than 1 year ago
The world is an enormous place with big responsibilities as you get older. These obligations get immense when you bring two children into the world and for Letty, she would rather not have to deal with these obligations or make choices for its too complicated. She’s been sliding by for years, relying on her parents to raise her children but when they abruptly return to Mexico, Letty must now learn to be a parent. No longer able to rely on her parents, Letty must learn to navigate on her own and make decisions that will affect her children’s future. Like all parents, Letty wants the best for her children but the means in which she tries to obtain them is not honest. Children are like sponges and Letty’s children are no different, for her actions result in her children following in her footsteps. Her children mean no harm; they just want what is best just like their mother. Letty’s older son Alex is almost 15 and although he thinks he knows the identity of his father, Letty has not been honest with him about it. As the two of them share what they know, Alex learns the identity of his father and I loved how Wes played a role in the novel. He didn’t dominate the male status but he shares it with Rick as Letty again has to deal with choices in her life, choices she needed to make on her own. There were a few stories within the novel, these accounts run alongside each other throughout the novel which allows you to see the whole picture, how everyone is connected.
Fredreeca2001 More than 1 year ago
When I read Language of Flowers I knew this author had talent. I was unsure if she would be able to repeat it. But, repeat it she did! Letty’s parents leave her and move back to Mexico. She must now become a real adult and take care of her own children. Letty is a misguided mother of two who must face reality and accept responsibility for her children. She makes some mistakes and these mistakes lead her to face her past and expect more from her future. I love the woman Letty becomes. She grows into a tough, strong mother and nothing will stop her from achieving what is right for her children. Sometimes her plans do not work out the way she wants but, this just keeps the story fascinating. This tale completely captivates the reader. You get so caught up in the characters’ lives, it is impossible to stop thinking about them, even when the novel is over. I received this novel from Netgalley for an honest review
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Does not have the depth her first book had.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
DimplesDA More than 1 year ago
From the moment I picked up this book, I just did not want to stop! Definitely another winning title from this author. A beautifully crafted story about family, relationships and the love of a mother for her children, and most important-hope for the future. A title not to be missed and so thoroughly enjoyable. Thank you!
AnnieMcDonnell More than 1 year ago
Vanessa Diffenbaugh crafted an amazing story of the strength and perseverance it takes to reach for the “American Dream”, especially when undocumented citizens are involved. I was truly captivated by her “make-your-heart-beat-faster” themes! It all began right away ~ from the very first page where Letty is driving south to the Mexican Border….leaving her children sleeping in bed, with no adult to wake up to. Just a note! You’ll worry about the outcome of this trip to Mexico. You will worry about a lot of things. But, it is all rather thrilling…”We never asked for Wings” delivers a story that will keep you at the proverbial, “edge of your seat”. This is a story of the Espinosa family; and when you finish reading about them, I assure you that you will feel better for having read it. I have a better understanding of the struggles people have coming to America from Mexico to make a successful life here. I thought that Vanessa Diffenbaugh told this story beautifully. I did not want to like Letty because of all of her “faults”. She tries to figure out the simple things in life from feeding your children, giving them shelter and a getting them a good education. But, she is met with hurdles all along the way. Nothing is coming easily, and Letty wants to give up quite a few times. How will she make all of this possible? Is it too late? Stepping in to take care of her two children at age 33! Luna is a feisty 6 year-old and Alex is a teenager trying to find his own way. She has not learned anything about Motherhood. Alex is one of the best characters I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. He is 14 going on 15, yet he has huge adult size dreams, he is smart, he knows how to love, and he wants to give this life all he has. He was an awe inspiring young man. You will love him, too! Alex takes over his grandfather’s collection of bird feathers, not to use in art as his grandfather did, but for a more scientific reason. The analogies of the birds’ flight plans, migrations, and all you could learn from a simple feather was so interesting to me. It all begged me to ask: “Don’t we all need wings?” Oh, and, I loved Letty!!!