Hello everyone, and welcome back!
I actually had a lot of new books pre-ordered for October. Thanks, past me? It’s always exciting when something new is coming in the mail, and naturally it’s easy to ditch everything I have queued up to jump on it. And that was definitely the case when this book came in the mail.
I’ve been really interested in grief as a theme in contemporary YA for some reason; maybe it’s because it seems to be an emerging trend in a genre that often has dead people, but very rarely deals with the “grief” part of it. YA is littered with dead parents, and any sort of genre fiction almost always has a body count. Some contemporaries do, too.
I figured this book would be a good mix of grief, insight into another culture for me, teen rebellion, and mystery. As for how the book handled my expectations, well. Let’s get to it, shall we?
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
So long as we’re commenting on covers: this is a pretty good one, in my not-at-all-professional opinion. (Editors are not designers, obvs.)
The premise of this one: Julia’s older sister, Olga, died in a tragic accident. Olga was the perfect sister; Julia is the rebellious daughter who loves art and writing and wants out of the life she has. However, some things Julia finds suggest that maybe Olga wasn’t the perfect person everyone thought she was.
I went into this hoping it’d be the better version of Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere, basically. It’s a similar premise there: a sister is dead, she left behind some mysteries, the remaining sibling is very artsy, there are love interests, etc. I wasn’t really into that book so much; it was okay, but it lacked the strong character writing of I’ll Give You the Sun (one of my blog favourites), the poetry the character wrote in it was very…not poetic (which threw me off), and twists/developments often felt kind of ham-handed for drama.
This book is…not that. So. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter definitely has some insight, for me, into a culture that’s not mine. It’s a particular look, obviously; not every family is Julia’s. But I think that’s one of the valuable aspects of it. Julia’s parents work hard for very little and went through a lot to try to give her and Olga better lives; they are protective and value family above all else; they have cultural values that clash with what their daughter, who grew up totally differently, wants to do with her life. The book is a lot about that—probably more so than anything else.
But I couldn’t really get into this book, for a lot of reasons. The first is that it’s written in a very passive way. It reads almost as a stream of consciousness with time jumps? It’s very internal, with a very small portion of it containing dialogue or direct actions taken by the characters. As a result, it’s very difficult to get to know any of the characters who aren’t Julia, since most of what we get is what she feels about them. That’s a disappointment, since her friends and family (and even her supportive teacher) seem like they could be interesting characters. This writing style also gives the book a diary feel without being a diary—a missed opportunity to just shift gears and make this feel less bumpy by matching the form of the book to the content.
Most of the book is Julia narrating in a gloss-over way some things that happened, and the largest part of it is Julia talking about her feelings. That’s not necessarily bad, but it does get repetitive, and the book doesn’t really tackle her grief about Olga in a significant way. She feels like “everything fell apart” after Olga died, but it’s unclear how her life is different, other than maybe increased pressure from her parents to be perfect—but the way Julia tells it, she’s always felt that pressure.
The primary mystery that kicks off the book is actually a thread that gets mostly dropped through the middle and picked up again near the end, so the book doesn’t really feel like a journey of Julia getting to know her sister after her death, nor am I sure that what she does learn leads her to much of a revelation about her relationship with her sister? That’s all right, I guess—I can just chalk that up to this not being the book I expected, or that this was advertised as—but then we come to the question of what this book is, actually. (Also, I have to say that since this book really isn’t about the mystery of Olga’s death or the grief about her, it sort of…almost felt like an unnecessary plot among many, to be honest.)
I think this book is largely about the clash between the values of Julia’s parents and Julia’s dreams and inner life. That’s definitely enough to be a book, but I’m not sure it ended up being a satisfying book for me. This clash is significantly between Julia and her mother, although her father (and his present-absence) is also a thing. Those relationships feel like they develop only marginally by the end. There are a couple of promising moments, but it feels like the book is doing too much to dig into how these three people negotiate their differences (and lingering grief, which is kind of barely a subject).
On that subject: this book is doing too much to focus on where it could’ve really hooked me (in Julia’s familial relationships). There’s Olga’s death, a love interest or two, Julia’s struggle with her parents, Julia’s relationships and conflicts with friends, class issues/poverty, her dreams of college and writing, some subject matter about mental illness and trauma, and so on. It’s a lot, and some of it feels unnecessary given how little it impacts the narrative in the end. There are many, many characters (mostly relatives), which is realistic, but very few of them get to be memorable at all because we don’t get to spend much time with them on page. (Yes, this kind of chaos reflects reality, but reality would make a bad novel. Fewer named characters and plots with stronger development usually works better, especially in a limited space.)
Each plot gets only a bit of time (this book is pretty short, at 340 pages), so it’s hard to get invested enough to start rooting for Julia’s relationship, or come up with suspicions about what Olga was doing (we really don’t know enough about her for that), or care about whether or not Julia and Lorena stay close, etc. I wanted Julia to achieve her dreams and go to college, but not so much because I really liked her as much as because I felt like her life was kind of miserable otherwise?
tl;dr: This book doesn’t feel like it’s about what was advertised, and it has too much going on to really hit its emotional beats. The clash of cultural values in it is interesting, but there’s so little time spent with each non-Julia character and on each relationship in this contemporary when the entire book is seemingly driven by character relationships and conflict. The passive writing style left me feeling a bit meandering and bored sometimes, and the sudden movement through time was jarring.
I really wanted to like this book and the author seems rad, but…like, there’s a moment here where Julia tells us in-narration that she sees a painting of a woman with a big butt, and thinks of this girl who also has a big butt (a fact we suddenly learn), and then she asks her mother about the girl, and it’s so painfully, memorably awkward. And I feel like the editors of this book maybe did it wrong by not revising those clunky moments and suggesting that this novel focus more on a few things and maybe change its form or use more active language, because it’s just…yeah. The potential was there. A coherent story I could get behind was not.
I always feel badly when I don’t love an anticipated diverse read, but…I also make a point of reading a lot of recent books by not white, straight, cis men and I can’t love everything I read, so this happens sometimes. (And I can always add this author to my second chances list.) Have any hyped books disappointed you lately? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!