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Reviewed by:
  • I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez
  • Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Sánchez, Erika L. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Knopf, 2017 [352p]
Library ed. ISBN 978-1-5247-0049-2 $20.99
Trade ed. ISBN 978-1-5247-0048-5 $15.99
E-book ed. ISBN 978-1-5247-0050-8 $10.99
Reviewed from galleys R* Gr. 8-12

Julia is fifteen when her older sister, Olga, dies in an accident, and it devastates the family; Olga was the perfect Mexican-American daughter, caring for nothing but family and living at home in her twenties. Julia, however, is abrasive and rebellious, chafing against her conservative mother’s restrictions and expectations (“What kind of woman are you going to be if you can’t even make a tortilla?”), dreaming of leaving their Chicago neighborhood for college, and hoping to become a writer. As Julia works through her anger and maturation, though, she begins to realize that nobody, not her domestic sister, not her worried mother, not her quiet father, is as uncomplicated as they seem.

What could be just a simple problem novel is a rich slice of experience as Julia, over the next couple of years, negotiates daily school and family life while seeking a world beyond them. That daily life is painted in vivid and detailed strokes—her South Side neighborhood, her trips outside it (including to the bookstore where she meets a boy she falls for, a suburban boy with experience very different from her own), and most of all her relationship with her family. Sánchez captures with bruising clarity Julia’s experience of being the odd one out at home (“I wish I knew the right thing to do, but I don’t. I never do”) and her continued friction with her mother. She also illuminates Julia’s discomfort with her parents’ first-generation American limited expectations and their strained English, in contrast to her own artistic yearnings; the scene where she helps her mother with her house-cleaning job brilliantly captures how complicated privilege can be, with Julia quailing from the grossness that her mother must matter-of-factly deal with.

The novel excels in slowly peeling away the layers of that family and gradually reconciling Julia’s shallow, typically adolescent take on people with the deeper truths. Julia learns that Olga had significant secrets (and was pregnant at the time she died), so she wasn’t the perfect Mexican daughter she appeared, but while that mystery is a catalyst it’s ultimately just part of a larger unveiling. Information about her parents’ past also shakes Julia’s preconceived notions about them and what they can and can’t understand. When she’s shipped off to the Chihuahua village to which her undocumented parents dream of returning one day, it turns out to be more complicated than her parents realized; the warm, idyllic lifestyle is punctured by gang shootings (“This is where the narcos beheaded the mayor, ” says her cousin cheerfully during a village tour). Perhaps most importantly, Julia’s understanding grows about herself after she’s diagnosed with anxiety and depression; while she’s not immediately at peace with the diagnosis and hospitalization, it casts a new light on how difficult she’s found the world. [End Page 105]

Ultimately, it’s Julia herself who’s the key to the novel, and she’s the kind of character who gets under a reader’s skin. A creation of raw and jagged dimensionality, she’s pushing back against just about everything, feeling both guilty and resentful about her parents’ sacrifices and modest life expectations, and yearning for more while fearing she doesn’t deserve it. She’ll resonate with many readers, and they’ll be glad to see her make it through a tough time. (See p. 131 for publication information.)

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