Erika L. Sanchez
Knopf, 2017 352 pages
Rebellious Julia lives in the shadow of her perfect older sister, Olga, who, although grown up and working, still lives at home and attends church and family functions with the family regularly, when tragedy strikes. Olga is run over by a bus and instantly killed. She seemed to be texting someone and smiling at the time of the accident, but who? Julia becomes obsessed with finding out, only Olga's phone and computer are locked and her best friend isn't talking. Meanwhile, her parents, undocumented and financially disadvantaged, are struggling with the loss of Olga and insist on Julia enduring a torturous Quinceanera, even though she is past the age of fifteen, almost to make up for the one they could never give to Olga. Through Julia's grief, she escapes to a bookstore where she meets a boy from the suburbs and the two begin to secretly date. As the school year progresses, Julia slides into a deep depression and finally acts upon her feelings of helplessness and inadequacy. After a trip to Mexico to stay with family and heal, she begins to understand her mother a bit better and the motivations behind her actions. Julia returns more mature and understanding and begins to repair the broken relationship with her mother and the two learn to appreciate each other in a new way. The truth behind Olga is finally revealed. Should Julia tell her mother what she has discovered about her seemingly perfect daughter, or leave her to her memories?
Timely and poignant, readers get a glimpse into the life of a Mexican immigrant family and the struggles, both socially and economically, they must endure to find their place in America. Julia is a bold and feisty character, who tries to make sense of the confusing world around her and learns to feel comfortable in her own skin and not compromise who she is as a person. A lot happens in this book. The sister dies right off the bat and it becomes almost a mystery to uncover the truth behind Olga's personal secrets. Beyond this there are subplots involving Julia's romance, her best friend's poor dating choices and creepy step-father, another friend's family’s abuse as a result of being gay, and Julia's desire to go to college even though she has no money, support, or decent grades. The primary plotline of the story, the mystery behind Olga, is solved, although not in the way I guessed. Other plot threads are left dangling (what really is going on with the friend’s creepy step-father?) and the relationship with the rich boy from the suburbs is never fully resolved. Themes include dealing with loss, teen depression, cultural identity, homophobia, class and economic inequality, all wrapped into a coming of age story. It reminded me a bit of the movie Ladybird. Both stories are coming of age high school tales where the main character must relate to their mother and end up leaving to go to prestigious New York City colleges with full-rides. Neither character had good grades in high school or any money, making the Exodus a bit unrealistic, but Ladybird's good fortune is explained as a result of 9/11 and Julia is excepted in a pilot program for first generation Americans. Lucky girls! I did find it refreshing that the result of the Cinderella ending was a full-ride to a great college instead of getting the guy. Because of underage drinking and recreational drug use, as well as a sexual scene, this book is not appropriate for middle school. Readers will never get bored spending time in Julia's shoes. First generation Americans will be glad to see their experience depicted and the rest of us may have a better understanding of what life is like for our neighbors and classmates.