“weaves all these stories and characters into a tapestry of believability that is well-crafted, suspenseful, and satisfying.”
Lauren Rico’s Familia tells the complex story of two sisters who discover each other through a DNA test and the solving of a 20-year-old mystery that spans two countries, two families, many colorful characters, and an intricately orchestrated ending.
A baby goes missing from her pram one night in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when her single, alcoholic father strays too close to a bar and is offered a beer.
In New York, a generation later, a young journalist, Gabby Di Marco, working as a fact checker for a New York magazine submits her DNA for an article exploring the possibilities, and potential calamities when gene-testing makes mistakes. Her test returns a match—a sister who shares 50% of her DNA—and this sister lives in Puerto Rico. The unbelievable test results upend Gabby’s sense of self, the history of her small family, and her relationship with her loving parents, introducing more questions than she’s willing to even consider. Although seriously skeptical of the test results, Gabby agrees to meet the woman (Isabella Ruiz) in Puerto Rico and continue fact checking for the article.
The narrative alternates between these two protagonists, with chapters simply titled “Isabella” or “Gabby” and further down on the page “Today” or “That Day.” Other characters involved in the dramatic, mysterious event of “That Day,” (when baby Marianna disappeared from the stroller) are also featured in chapters with their name at the head of the chapter and the same time-reference “Today” or “That Day.” The organization of the multiple-POV story via these chapters does the heavy lifting of sorting out the complexities of the well-constructed plot.
Throughout the story, in spite of Gabby’s denouncements, almost everyone else is convinced that she is indeed Isabella’s sister, but Gabby herself will not be satisfied unless both she and Isabella re-submit their DNA and wait for the results, locally. This narrative device is a great opportunity for Gabby to snoop and question, for Isabella to pester and convince—in short, for the novel to carry on with Gabby remaining in Puerto Rico as the sisters get to know each other and as some of the events of “That Day” are teased out.
As a reporter, Gabby follows up on many of the unanswered questions still hanging after 20 years and the plot follows her questions and the characters who were pivotal in the events of “That Day,” including her drunken father, Alberto. The premise is compulsively addictive. Here and there are chapters of back story, each one putting a piece of the puzzle of the event into place. A local thug with a reputation for violence is observed against a story told by a Catholic nun and other religious characters in this deeply Christian country, Puerto Rico.
Both Gabby and Isabella are revealed as complex, interesting persons in their own right— against the backdrop of their lives, their potential connection as sisters and the questions that refuse to be swept away. As the mystery of the night baby Marianna disappeared is unraveled, thread by thread, as each character involved returns to the scene of the crime—via newspaper articles, the secret testimony of witnesses, memories, secrets, a pink sock—the story concludes. The only source not tapped is Gabby’s parents, conveniently dead and gone when the novel opens.
Still, Familia holds up: the author weaves all these stories and characters into a tapestry of believability that is well-crafted, suspenseful, and satisfying.