Clap When You Land is Elizabeth Acevedo's third-ever novel, but her second one written in verse. It is the story of two sisters separated by life, borders, and secrets, who are finally brought together when their father dies in a tragic plane crash. The inspiration for this novel was American Airlines flight 587, which crashed after departing New York for the Dominican Republican in November 2001. About 90% of its passengers were Dominican or of Dominican descent, Acevedo shares in her Author's Note. News coverage died down as soon as suspicions of terrorism were disproven, but Acevedo didn't stop researching about the passengers and their stories.
Yahaira Rios lives in New York with her mother who manages a spa, and her father who disappears to the DR for a few months out of the year. She is a chess champion--or rather, was, until she one day learned something she wasn't supposed to know, and then stopped speaking to him.
Camino Rios lives in the Dominican Republic with her aunt. Having lost her mother to illness, Camino apprentices with her aunt, a healer, and dreams of attending medical school at Columbia in New York. She only sees her father when he flies to the DR for a few months out of the year.
It's not a spoiler: They share the same father, and have gone their whole lives not knowing about each other.
It's a story about grief, but it's so much more than that, as we delve into the girls' lives and circumstances: their hopes and dreams, the dangers they face, their friendships, and their families. Their father, singular. The novel tells the stories of their lives in diptych, so we are seeing their layers unfold at the same time, revealing two girls with very different life experiences, experiencing the same loss and sense of being lost. I particularly love that the other women in their lives have their own fascinating stories as well, and there's a part of me that would love to know more about their stories: Yahaira's mother, Zoilla; Yahaira's girlfriend, Dre; Camino's Tia; and Camino's best friend, Carline. They're our supporting cast, but they don't feel like a supporting cast, because the life that Acevedo breathes into them makes them feel real and robust. They could each be the main characters of their own stories.
And maybe that's the main takeaway: people are dynamic, complex, and we may think we know someone, but we might never know ALL of someone. Even the most despicable character in this novel has a tragic backstory that led to his being despicable. And as far as their father goes? He might be the most complex one of all of them, and the book doesn't offer any justifications or indictments of his double-life; it just states that he had one, and we see the consequences (good and bad) of his choices.
This story was beautiful, sad, and absolutely compelling. And even more engrossing if you listen to the audiobook version, narrated by Acevedo herself (as Yahaira) and Melania-Luisa Marte (as Camino), with the beautiful, lilting combination of Spanish and verse.
I gave it 5 stars.