In June of this year, Newsweek published a list of recommended books called Fifty Books for Our Times. It seemed a booklist made just for me: fiction and non-fiction books chosen for their ability to provoke thought on everything from the environment to religion to international relations. One of the selections on the list was Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx. I think it is one of the best books I have read this year.
The book starts by describing how Jessica, a beautiful Puerto Rican teenager, made sure to dress stylishly every day because she always wanted to be prepared for any opportunity that may arise as she went out into her Bronx neighborhood. Jessica is the nexus of the narrative at first, but LeBlanc’s novel accommodates many stories: Jessica’s brother Cesar, her mother, Jessica’s boyfriends, extended relatives, and Jessica’s children. A little ways into the book, we are introduced to Coco, another teenage girl, who eventually becomes Cesar’s girlfriend. Coco forms the other nexus of the narrative, and we follow her as she, similar to Jessica, negotiates poverty and single motherhood.
According to the note at the end of the book, LeBlanc was present for many of the events and for the other events she got first-hand accounts from the people involved. The book represents around a decade of work. How LeBlanc managed to be the fly on the wall for the lives of these people through all those years, I do not know, but she puts the reader right there in the thick of it. That is amazing.
The tone of the book is matter-of-fact – LeBlanc does not judge but she doesn’t soften flaws either. Though Jessica, Coco and the others in this random family make poor decisions throughout their lives, they are not presented in a demeaning or condescending way. Also, you would think that reading about lives in poverty would be incredibly depressing, but I did not find it so. The people who are described in the book do not see their lives as hopeless: they adapt and make do with what they have, even in the face of great disappointments and struggles.
Random Family plunged me into a world I knew very little about, so that I came to know the details of how those in poverty handle child-care, relatives in prison, and the daily grind of life. This book is a must-read for the eye-opening experience it provides.