Raymond Jaffe feels like he doesn’t belong. Not with his mother’s new family — his stepfather and three younger sisters. Not as a weekend guest with his father and his father’s wife. Not at school, where he’s an outcast.
After his best friend moves away, Raymond has only two real connections: to the feral cat he’s tamed and to a blind ninety-two-year-old woman in his building who introduced herself one morning by asking a curious question: Have you seen Luis Velez?
Mildred Gutermann, a German Jew who narrowly escaped the Holocaust, has been alone in her apartment since her caretaker, Luis, vanished. Nearing desperation, she turns to Raymond for help. As he searches for Luis, a deep and unexpected friendship blossoms between the two.
Despondent at the loss of Luis, Mildred isolates herself further from a neighborhood devolving into bigotry and fear. Determined not to let her give up, Raymond helps her see that for every terrible act the world delivers, there is a mirror image of deep kindness. Mildred helps Raymond see that there’s hope if you have someone to hold on to.
Have You Seen Luis Velez? is a moving hew novel from Catherine Ryan Hyde, one of America’s favorite storytellers, about two strangers who find that kindness is a powerful antidote to fear.
Bestselling author Catherine Ryan Hyde grew up in a family characterized by “a great deal of heartache and chaos. Everybody seemed quite busy with the problems at hand (I was the third of three), so I became the disappearing child. I amused myself by making up stories in my head, and tried not to need anything from the people around me. Too bad that never works. Now I seem to write stories about kids (and sometimes other people) who fall through the cracks and need someone to catch them. I don’t suppose that’s a coincidence. I don’t suppose anything in life is.” She describes her novels as “coming of age” stories that are usually focused on young characters, “but geared more toward the adult reader.” Not only is the cover of her latest book, em>Have You Seen Luis Velez?, one of her favorites among her more than 30 novels, the story is “especially close to my heart.” It is destined to be especially close to readers’ hearts, as well.
Sixteen-year-old Raymond Jaffe’s only friend, Andre, is moving to California. On their last morning walking to school together, they descend the stairs in the apartment building where Raymond lives with his mother, stern stepfather, and half-sisters to find an old woman standing in the doorway of her apartment. She is calling out, “Hello? Hello? Is someone still there?” Raymond notices that even though he is standing right in her line of sight, she seems not to see him. When he acknowledges her, she asks, “Do you know Luis Velez? Have you seen him?”
When Raymond returns from school that afternoon, the old woman is again (or still?) in the doorway of her apartment, ringing her hands. When Raymond stops to converse with her, she thanks him for stopping, explaining, “Most people don’t stop. Most people hurry by. When I ask a question, they hurry faster. I wonder sometimes why we’re all so afraid of one another. Or . . . actually . . . no, I don’t really wonder. I know why. But I reflect on it. And I think it’s a shame.” Raymond learns that for more than four years Luis Velez has been helping and checking on her at least three times per week. She asks Raymond if perhaps his family might know Luis and after he assures her that he will inquire, she tells him, “You’re a thoughtful young man.” For a moment, Raymond freezes, allowing her words to settle over him and savoring the good feeling they inspire. To Raymond, that feeling is “strangely foreign. Welcome, but mostly unfamiliar.” At that moment, Raymond does not know, of course, that his chance encounters with a ninety-two-year-old blind woman will prove to be a life-altering.
Thus begins a friendship and a journey. Raymond realizes that if Luis has stopped checking on Mildred “Millie” Gutermann, she no longer has anyone helping her. He soon learns that Luis was Milie’s lifeline. He walked her to the bank and grocery store, but since it has been seventeen days since he last checked on Millie, her food supply is precariously low. Thus, Raymond accompanies her both places, in the process learning about how someone without sight navigates the world and maintains a living space free from dangerous obstacles. Raymond takes over the role of Millie’s caregiver, and they drink tea and get to know each other, Raymond’s self-perception and outlook begin to change dramatically.
‘I just came into some money unexpectedly,’ he said. . . . It was something that had started happening after Raymond began helping. The more people saw him trying to help someone else, the more help they seemed to want to drop on him.
Raymond soon realizes that he is not the same person he was on that fateful morning. And that he must find Luis so Millie will know exactly why he abandoned her abruptly. But there are many individuals named Luis Velez in a large, diverse city. Raymond encounters a number of them along the way and makes some new friends in the process. Eventually, he finds his way to the family of the Luis Velez who cared for Millie — and learns tragic news. Luis’s death effects Millie deeply. She explains that she has known many people who died young, declining to expound further, but wisely tells Raymond, “It would be a failing to recognize that life took Luis away but also brought me you.” Eventually, as their unusual friendship deepens, Raymond learns about Millie’s past and the impact that survivor’s guilt has had upon her choices and relationships.
Hyde is known for writing stories about the resiliency of the human spirit, as well as the connectedness and sense of community that seems so lacking in America today. Hyde observes that in her writing, she repeatedly returns to one question: “What is our responsibility to each other?” She is “fascinated by people who help not because they have to but because they can.” She writes beautifully, with seeming ease, and her deep compassion for her subject matter is always evident. Have You Seen Luis Velez? is an endearing exploration of a most unlikely friendship that transforms two individuals on the opposite spectrum of life. Raymond discovers that helping someone else brings him rewards — improved self-esteem, confidence, and relationships with the other important people in his life, and the ability to recognize when a friendship is no longer healthy because it does not enhance one’s life and that it is perfectly acceptable to end it. An old woman who cannot see, is, ironically, the first person Raymond feels has ever truly seen him, but Millie helps him understand that perhaps it is he who needs to take a second look at his life and the people in it. And Raymond, through his kindness, brings Millie out of the darkness that has shrouded her life, and helps her to remember that living a long life “is a gift denied to many, and so it comes with a responsibility to make the most of it. At the very least to appreciate it. People gripe about growing older — their aches and pains, how much harder everything is — as if they had forgotten that the alternative is dying young.”
Have You Seen Luis Velez? is also a timely commentary about a modern society in which millions of individuals live in isolation, cut off from each other. Ryan gently illustrates how reaching out to someone in need reaps benefits for both parties, and dispels loneliness and self-recriminations. Ryan’s approach is never heavy-handed and her skillful creation of fully developed, realistic and empathetic characters proves her point gently, eloquently, and with great emotional impact upon her readers. In Hyde’s opinion, “a lot of fiction focuses on the darkest parts of our nature. And I think people read fiction like mine because they want to believe in the positive side of what it means to be human.”
By the end of Have You Seen Luis Velez?, Raymond and Millie, along with Ryan’s enchanting cast of supporting characters, feel like old friends for whom readers will wish only the best. It is an uplifting, much-needed story in a time when Americans are arguably more divided and divisive then ever before in this country’s history. Have You Seen Luis Velez? is one of 2019’s must-read books.
You might enjoy my reviews of Just After Midnight and Heaven Adjacent, also by Catherine Ryan Hyde.
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