I love a book that makes you sit up straight in your chair with a shocking start. What could be better than an opening paragraph with fifteen-year-old Julia Reyes staring into her dead sister’s face. Olga Reyes, the “good daughter”, distracted by her cell phone, had stepped off a bus into the path of a semi and died at the tender age of twenty-two.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Julia’s parents illegally entered the United States in 1993 fleeing a violent life in Mexico with hopes of a better life. They settled in Chicago and maintained the necessary low-profile. Their Latinx culture and extended family contacts tethered by a phone line back to Mexico. With the birth of her daughters, Amà, strives to do her duty to pass along her culture and family traditions to her girls. Olga proved pliant but Julie fights her hoof and nail.
“Perfect daughters” would be obedient, respect elders, and place needs of the family before needs of the self. They would marry a Latino, raise a family and eschew a life away from their parents and ethnic community. Olga was Amá’s pride and joy. But beneath Olga’s quiet nature lies a deep secret. Julia breaks into her dead sister’s sealed bedroom and discovers something strange. In time she learns her sister’s secret and she must decide whether to reveal it to her parents. What good would it do to destroy their lives?
“Here [Olga] was, a grown-ass woman, and all she did was go to work, sit at home with our parents, and take one class each semester at the local community college. What kind of life is that? Didn’t she want more? Didn’t she ever want to go out and grab the world by the balls?
Julia is the polar opposite of Olga. While Olga spent her days cleaning and cooking, Julia escapes (literally) the house to visit art museums and the library. She dreams of college and a career. Her descriptions of her favorite books and pieces of art work will drive you to Google to find out what she sees for yourself. (She identifies with Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin.)
She feels she is holding her breath until she can become a writer and move to New York – or anywhere that wasn’t Chicago. She and her mother had been at loggerheads forever but after Olga’s death, Amá was on Julia’s back like white on rice. Amá determined to control Julia’s future and Julia determined to be free from her suffocating mother.
“When I tell her I need privacy… she tells me I’ve become too Americanized. ‘You kids here think you can do whatever you want.'”
It is hard to like Julia; she’s every parent’s nightmare. A teenage girl. She is foul-mouthed, abrasive, outspoken, and angry all the time. She lashes out and confronts everyone about everything. Her favorite “power word” is f***. It is evident that the anger is a defense mechanism to mask her severe depression and anxiety disorder. The softer side of Julia reveals a deeply caring person desperate to be loved and feeling unloved. The book’s powerful discussion of depression and Julia’s suicidal attempt might be a trigger for those teens experiencing the same feelings. Julia’s therapy sessions should offer hope to those same troubled kids.
In and among the cornucopia of stressor topics that derail Julia are strong characters that see beneath her bluster and guide her toward adulthood and peace within herself and among her family. She learns she doesn’t need to cast off her culture to achieve her dreams.
“I have so many choices they’ve never had. And I feel like I can do so much with what I’ve been given. What a waste their journey would be if I just settled for a dull mediocre life.”