I was seeing this YA book by Erika Sánchez everywhere for a while, but knew I wouldn’t have time to read it, so I got the audiobook from my library and I really enjoyed it.
It’s about a young girl, named Julia (pronounced hoo-lee-uh) who lives in Chicago – my home town! Except not really because Julia’s family is poor and they live in a not-great part of town. I’m not sure the book ever specifies what part of the city they live in, but there are plenty of Chicago landmarks throughout the book that I did recognize, including Lake Shore Drive and the Art Institute.
The book begins with the death of Julia’s older sister, Olga. Olga had graduated from high school, but was still living at home while she worked as a receptionist and went to college part time. She also helped her mom around the house, so she was “the perfect Mexican daughter” until she crossed a busy street without paying attention and got killed by a truck.
Julia is not perfect. She doesn’t get good grades, she doesn’t cook or clean, and she has no desire to stick around after graduation. She wants to go to college and become “the greatest writer who ever lived.” She also has depression, although it goes undiagnosed for much of the book.
I related to Julia on so many levels. We both grew up in/around Chicago, we both love reading and writing, and we both suffered from periodic depression in high school, although mine peaked in college and I didn’t quite get to the level Julia did, which is actually one of the things that bugged me about the book.
The reader gets hints throughout the book that Julia is suffering from depression. She’s having trouble concentrating in her classes, she’s not getting along with her parents, and she’s got a great boyfriend, but he doesn’t know how to deal with her depression and they end up breaking up, after which Julia attempts suicide.
The way the suicide is written is interesting because the chapter just ends with Julia sitting alone after the breakup and the next chapter begins with her waking up in the hospital. It turns out she slit her wrists in her bedroom and her dad broke in and took her to the hospital.
My one problem with the way it was handled is that, while it’s very dramatic, that’s not how most suicides happen. Very rarely do people just decide to kill themselves after a particularly bad day. In the case of chronic depression, it usually progresses in stages where it starts with wishing they were dead, then they start considering suicide, then they start planning different ways to commit suicide before they actually do the deed. Of course, everyone is different, but it struck me that Julia didn’t go through any of these stages before jumping right into taking action.
Back to Olga.
Amidst all this, Julia finds out Olga wasn’t as perfect as everyone had thought. In fact, she hadn’t been enrolled in any college classes for a while, she had been having an affair with a married man, and she was pregnant with his child. Julia’s parents never find out about any of this, although they do find some of Olga’s lingerie in with Julia’s things. When Julia tries to explain, they don’t believe her because they don’t believe Olga would have ever had such things – because she was so perfect.
In that sense the book felt like it was trying to do too much at once. I thought at first that it was going to pursue the Olga mystery, but then it went off in a completely different direction with Julia’s depression and her struggles with the relationships in her life.
I also have a friend who pointed out there’s been a rash of YA books lately about people of color dating white people, including The Hate U Give and Dear Martin, and now I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. The difference is that the main characters in The Hate U Give and Dear Martin have an excuse because they’re both attending largely white schools. Julia does not have that excuse because she’s growing up in a largely Mexican neighborhood, and yet she ends up dating a white guy from Evanston because they meet at a book store and start talking literature. I thought it was adorable, but my friend had a point in that it made it seem like Julia couldn’t find any suitable boys of color her own age.
What did you guys read this week? Anything that you enjoyed, but was kind of problematic?