I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers
When Julia’s older sister, Olga, is killed in a freak accident, her world is shattered and her parents can barely hold it together. What her parents don’t seem to understand is that Julia is just as devastated as they are, and doesn’t know how she will possibly live the rest of her life without her sister. Unfortunately for Julia, Olga had always been the perfect, well-behaved daughter, so now that she’s gone, Julia’s mother has even more time to focus on Julia’s faults and imperfections. When Julia starts learning things about Olga that contradict the “perfection” she’s always believed her sister to be, she can’t help investigating and gets the opportunity to get to know her sister better than she did when she was alive.
When a book is centered around one character, and that character has a confrontational, prickly, adversarial type of personality, it can be really difficult to like the book. What Sanchez succeeds so well at in this novel is making the reader care about and root for exactly this kind of person in the character of Julia. Julia is not easy to like or even understand. True, most anyone can sympathize and maybe even empathize with the death of a close family member. But Julia had a rough-around-the-edges way about her long before her sister passed away, and it’s clear to the reader throughout the book that she is not the easiest person for others to get along with.
I personally wasn’t irritated by her, because I did sympathize with her situation and I did feel that her parents (especially her mother) put a lot of pressure on her. But there was no question in my mind that she had an obnoxious, over-the-top way about her that made me cringe more than a few times as I read her interactions with others in her life. However – and this is what’s great about how Erika Sanchez wrote this novel – I became deeply invested in her story and truly wanted her life to take a turn for the better. I hoped desperately that she’d start getting along better with her parents, begin understanding the sacrifices they’d made for her and Olga, and become a slightly more mature, level-headed older teen. It was easy to hope for these things because she showed tremendous growth over the course of the novel and in the character of Julia, Sanchez really created a person who comes into her own as the novel progresses. I loved that.
There is a lot of stuff in the book about Mexican culture and immigration and all of the issues that the Mexican community in America has to deal with on a daily basis, but that was a sidebar to Julia’s story. I liked that Sanchez taught the reader a few things as she was teaching those same things to Julia, but the “lessons” didn’t feel heavy-handed or like teaching moments. They felt organic, like I was getting to know this family and their community and their struggles at the same time Julia was growing up and becoming more aware of the world outside of her small personal bubble. It was very well done, in my opinion.
Ultimately I really did enjoy this book. I do have to say that there was a lot of build-up to the big secrets that Olga had been keeping from her family, and the big reveal was less shocking than I was expecting it to be, but truly Olga’s life and death serves as a background for Julia’s story. This book is about Julia growing up and dealing with adult circumstances when she’s just on the verge of being emotionally mature enough to do so. I loved the growth that Julia shows in the book and overall I really enjoyed reading it.