I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez.
Ember, Random House Children’s Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
YA fiction, 362 pages.
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 12.0 points) .
Julia is not the perfect Mexican daughter. That was her sister, Olga – until she died in a tragic accident that left everyone reeling. Now her already strained relationship with her mother has shattered, her father is a lump, and Julia is obsessed with investigating her sister’s life, trying to get to know the sister who was ignored when she was alive.
Because the majority of this book is about the unfolding drama of Julia’s quest to understand her sister Olga’s life, it’s incredibly difficult to discuss this book in any depth without spoilers. The action spans a space of just about two years, from a few months after Olga’s death, through Julia’s high school graduation.
Julia is not very likeable. She messes up, is self-centered, and was quite frankly cruel and dismissive of her sister before her death. But that makes her so much more relatable. Sanchez has a remarkable gift to make her characters, even the minor ones, feel very real.
In particular the family relationships felt so true to life. Sanchez doesn’t avoid bringing difficult topics into this novel – in fact, looking at a list it feels rather overwhelming! But on the page everything is cohesive, because it’s about Julia’s personal journey through grief, depression, and the process of finding herself.
Part of what makes Julia disagreeable is that she’s defined herself as the opposite of her sister for most of her life. With her sister literally absent from the page (although emotionally a main character), Julia has lost some of her self-definition and is floundering. She’s also full of interests and goals that she doesn’t believe her family will understand or even care about. It’s a perfect storm of teenage angst mixed with cultural and class differences. I saw one list that suggested this as a read in place of The Catcher in the Rye, and I would whole-heartedly agree.
There are some romantic aspects, but it’s not a romance. [Spoilers follow in this paragraph.] Julia meets various romantic partners and has interest in two very different possible partners. She realistically considers both their unique flaws and potential, as they have very different things to offer her. However, I especially loved that she did recognize the need to focus on herself (and of course her obsession with her deceased sister’s secrets) instead of romance. That’s not to say that mental illness prevents relationships! But just that she’s wise enough to realize that when in a state of crisis and deep grief, it’s not the best time to lay foundation for a stable relationship.
There are many warnings to give, however please be aware that some of these could also be considered spoilers. Depression, self-harm, adultery, grief, unplanned pregnancy, accidental death, suicide attempt, physical and emotional abuse, rape, underage drinking, border crossing, drug violence, gang threats, a shooting, and maybe others that I missed. There is a lot of plot to cover, and many secrets to uncover as the plot unfolds.
Because some of the content can be intense or triggering for some students, I would suggest that parents, teachers, and librarians pre-read this one to be aware of some of the more difficult points. However, I’d definitely recommend it! A moving and intense, but ultimately satisfying read.