'After the Hurricane': An emotional road trip in Puerto Rico
In Leah Franqui’s latest novel, a daughter returns to Puerto Rico to search for her troubled father, who has gone missing after Hurricane Maria
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In the winter of 2020, just before the world shut down, author Leah Franqui, who describes herself as a “proud Philadelphian,” took a trip with her father, who is an alcoholic, to San Sebastian, the town in Puerto Rico his family is originally from — a place she had never been to before. The trip — a difficult one, emotionally speaking — turned into the best field research for the novel she was writing then, about a woman trying to find her estranged alcoholic Puerto Rican father after Hurricane Maria.
“I had hoped I would connect to something on this trip, to feel something. I had hoped I would find some piece of myself in the place my family is from. But San Sebastian just a small town in Puerto Rico, a place like any other, and I was fanciful to think some magic would happen here, some light would shine in my father’s eye, and he would be some other version of himself, unlock some door,” Franqui wrote on Lit Hub, a site for book lovers, in July 2022, just days before her novel was published.
After the Hurricane (Harper Collins, August 2022) tells the story of Elena Vega, a woman in her 20s whose life from the outside appears to be an easy one — the only child of two professional parents, private school and NYU. But her 20s are aimless and lacking in connection. Something has always been amiss in her life: her father, the brilliant but deeply troubled Santiago Vega.
Born in rural Puerto Rico, Santiago arrived in New York as a small child. His harsh, mercurial father returned to the island, leaving Santiago to be raised by his mentally ill mother and his formidable grandmother. An outstanding student, he followed scholarships to Stanford, then Yale Law, marrying Elena’s mother along the way. Santiago is the shining star of his family — the one who made it out and struck it rich. But he is a haunted man, plagued by trauma, bipolar disorder, and alcoholism. He’s lost contact with Elena over the years and returned to San Juan to wrestle his demons alone.
Then Hurricane Maria strikes, and Santiago vanishes. Desperate to know what happened to the father she once adored, Elena returns to Puerto Rico, a place she loved as a child but hasn’t seen in years. There, she must unravel the truth about who her father is, crisscrossing the storm-swept island and reaching deep into his family tree to find relatives she’s never met, each of whom seems to possess a clue about Santiago’s fate.
A compelling mystery unfolds, as Elena is reunited with family, and with a place she loved and lost — the island of Puerto Rico, which is itself a character in this book.
Restless and curious
A curious and restless traveler, Franqui got a degree in Theater Studies from Yale University in 2009 and then she traveled for a year trying to find herself, working on a farm in southern Spain, going on a Rubens fangirl trip to Belgium, and entertaining fellow train passengers in China.
Returning to Philadelphia, she started working in non-profit theater to support her work as a playwright. In 2015 she moved to Mumbai, where she spent six years. Her stay in India helped her to write her debut novel, America for Beginners, starring a Bengali widow that embarks on a road trip of the U.S. with a Bangladeshi guide and a young American woman. The novel, described as funny, poignant, and insightful, explores the complexities of family, immigration, prejudice, and the American dream through meaningful and unlikely friendships forged in unusual circumstances.