Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Book Review Club - I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Erika L. Sánchez

Do not judge a book by its cover - this is a recurring theme in this story. Guiltily, I admit, the cover was part of its initial appeal for me. I grew up near Chicago so the lake to the right and Sears Tower there to the left--or whatever it's called these days--grabbed me. Even more so, the title. It entices with so much. Conflict, for one. Then, for some, a new culture. For others, resonance. And for others still, all, none, and/or something entirely different. Which all adds up to: I was hooked before I ever opened the book.

Basic premise: Julia is the black sheep of her family. When her older sister, and perfect Mexican daughter to their parents, Olga, dies in an accident, this becomes even more apparent, and, ultimately, unbearable. Julia spirals down into a depression she has already long suffered from, until she attempts suicide. No spoilers. That's just the first half of the book. The second half is Julia's journey of self-discovery, while also discovering who her seemingly perfect older sister really was, and how that reshapes how she sees herself.

The story moves from Julia's home and school in Chicago, to a mental clinic, to Mexico, to, ultimately, New York. It is packed with new characters and new settings. I have rarely seen an author pack so many "sets" into a book. It works, but it's not one of those books you read slowly. The faster you get through, the easier it is to juggle the cast.

Also, the easier it is to grapple with the first half of the book. Julia is depressed. Her sister is dead. Family expectations get heaped on her. It's too much, especially for a teenager. And while her character and the way she acts are very real, she is, ultimately, a hard character to like.

One of the things I talk with kids about when I do author visits is what kinds of stories we want to read vs. how we want our lives to go. Arguably, we want to live "happy all the time". We want to have all the clocks in the world stop at night and everybody gets to accidentally sleep in but without any consequences, ace the math test, have pizza every day for lunch (almost anyway).  BUT, we do not want to read "happy all of the time". It's, well, boring. We want bad things to happen to characters in stories.

After having read this piece, I'd add, but we still want to like those characters. We don't want them to be too much like us, or, for too long anyway. Julia is rough on the world. She spreads a lot of unhappiness and hate. She is biting, sarcastic, angry. She's very real. Her personality very much fits her circumstances. It would be nearly impossible not to be that way given her depression, environment, and the devastating loss of a sibling. At the same time, reading her experiences of the world is abrasive, it's hard, it put me off at times. I'm not proud to admit that, but it was my emotional reaction. This may be because the world right now feels too abrasive, harsh, and indifferent at best already. Literature tends to be where I go to take a break. This was no break. This was a harsh reality.

Nevertheless, it's an important story, an important view into the world of depression that so many suffer from, a way to begin to understand by getting inside a fictional character's thoughts for just a little while and realize how overwhelming psychosis is. It's the kind of book that would do really well in a classroom, fostering discussion, being shared, rather than read alone and leaving the reader to process alone. But however read, one thing remains certain, this story will move a reader. It will stick with them. It may even change them. Sánchez has created a masterful story, from the very first word of the title itself.

For other story gems to light up these winter months, check out:

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@Barrie Summy