First love of a deeper variety haunts Jon Michaud's first novel, When Tito Loved Clara (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 352 pp.) Tito Moreno and Clara Lugo are both immigrants from the Dominican Republic whose fathers are feuding. Like “Romeo and Juliet,” the two met in secret as teenagers. (Clara's father kidnapped her from her grandparents' farm when she was six, leaving her to the mercy of an abusive stepmother.)
Then Clara disappeared right before she was due to leave for college, and Tito never saw her again.
Fifteen years later, Clara, a law librarian, has escaped Inwood. She married a white guy she met in library school, is living in the suburbs, and has a son. Tito, meanwhile, still works for the moving company he did in high school and dreams about Clara. His mom calls him “un hombre incompleto,” an unfinished man.
Then Clara agrees to take in her pregnant niece when her sister returns to the Dominican Republic, setting in motion events that will reunite the high school sweethearts. Michaud toggles between the two former lovers, showing the events that led to their separation from both of their (very different) perspectives. The novel has enough soapy twists to lather up a telenovela, and the ending is a letdown. Balancing that is Michaud's elegant writing and his refreshingly unusual cast. Clara and Tito are both hugely sympathetic, and bookshelves aren't exactly overflowing with novels chronicling the Dominican immigrant experience.