Source of book: Audiobook from the library.
I went back and forth on whether to listen to this with the kids, but decided against it, and used it for commuting instead. I think that was probably the right way to go, just because some of the themes are a bit much for a couple of the kids. We have listened to some heavy books, such as The Hate U Give, but in this case, the attempted suicide might have been a trigger. For those considering this book, be aware that there is some mild drug use (cannabis), plenty of swearing, sexual references, and a plot that centers around some pretty dark secrets, including adultery and rape.
The book starts with a death: Julia’s older sister Olga accidentally stepped in front of a truck on Chicago’s busiest street, and is killed instantly. This triggers a nearly complete breakdown of Julia’s family that unfolds over the course of the first half of the book. Her mom goes into such a deep depression that she stays in bed for days on end, her dad withdraws into silence and non-engagement, and Julia is left with a stew of trauma, emotions, grief, and frustration that combine with her undiagnosed depression. And it wasn’t as if the family was mentally healthy to start with.
Julia’s parents are undocumented immigrants who came over with a “coyote” before she was born. They work hard at physical jobs that leave them exhausted and unhappy, even though they know their children will do better. Olga was the perfect kid, the one that made both parents happy, while Julia is loud, chunky, sarcastic, and the exact opposite of the “perfect Mexican daughter” of the title. So, when Olga dies, Julia cannot escape the constant negative comparisons to Olga.
“She has compared me to my sister every single day of my life, so why should I expect that to change now that she’s dead?”
Julia is also smart, but struggles in some subjects at school, often because of disengaged or outright hostile teachers. Fortunately, her English teacher, Mr. Ingman, sees her potential, and supports her efforts.
After Olga’s death, several events dominate Julia’s life. First, when her mother finally gets out of her funk, she decides to use Olga’s savings to throw Julia a (belated) Quincenera party, which is literally the last thing Julia wants. It is pretty obvious that this isn’t about Julia at all, but her mother’s guilt that Olga never got a Quincenera. Second, Julia has a feeling that there is a secret being hidden from her about Olga. Why, after all, did Olga never graduate from community college? When Julia breaks into Olga’s carefully preserved room at home, she finds some items that strongly suggest that the “good girl” was having sex with someone on the sly. But who?
Julia manages to get away with her best friend Lorena to a crazy party, where she finds out additional information that makes it even more clear that Olga had secrets. Lorena brings another person into the friendship as well, “Juanga,” who is gay and keeps getting kicked out of his home for that. Although Julia and Juanga don’t get along at first, it eventually becomes clear that Juanga isn’t a bad guy, just...a bit weird sometimes.
Then, Julia meets Connor at a bookstore. He is, in a high school way, kind of a kindred spirit, the first guy she has met who loves books as much as she does. The problem? He’s white, and from a rich family on the other side of town. Which leads to some cultural stuff, plus she can’t tell her parents about him, particularly after they have sex. (Safe, consensual, and kind of blah sex, because high school.)
The problem is, because of Julia’s unresolved issues, and those of her parents, things just keep spiraling down, until she feels hopeless enough to attempt suicide. After this turning point, things eventually improve, and Julia is able to fulfil her dream of going to college in New York.
There are some things I liked and some things I disliked about this book. Sometimes, they were the same things. Julia is not a particularly likeable protagonist. She has a smart mouth, a cutting defense mechanism, and is so full of internal drama that she cannot act in a healthy way. Which is, of course, the point of the book. Julia is in a difficult situation, and not everything is her fault. Her mother is thoroughly dysfunctional, and does dislike Julia and her personality. Her parents have no way to navigate American culture, so they try to force Julia into the “perfect Mexican daughter” mold. And, compounding this, they lack the necessary tools to help Julia through her difficulties. On the other hand, Julia has a knack for always doing the worst thing with her choices. She too lacks the skills to help herself, and she is too suspicious of others to avail herself of the help they offer. Perhaps the best quote to illustrate that is this one:
“It’s easier to be pissed, though. If I stop being angry, I’m afraid I’ll fall apart until I’m just a warm mound of flesh on the floor.”
I understand that feeling.
Also, there is SO. MUCH. DRAMA. It was a bit exhausting to listen to this book because of that. Again, that’s the point. And it is written well - it all felt very real and very...familiar. (More on that later.) So much angst. So much pain and hurt and trauma.
There are some brighter moments. Juanga is pretty hilarious. Connor is in the mold of the decent guy who is in way over his head. The moments of romance and fun seem real as well, and they ease some of the tension. The episode in Mexico feels a bit out of place with the rest of the book, but it also doesn’t, because it is part of Julia’s complex background. Her parents are, in many ways, still part of Mexico even as they are in America. Julia is pulled between cultures for that reason.
The cultural complexity is really well drawn, on both sides of the border. It is a nuanced portrayal of the flaws that are in every culture, every person. And, there is this observation by Julia, which I wish I could convince conservative white people of:
“The fucking border.” I feel a wildness spreading through me. “It’s nothing but a giant wound, a big gash between the two countries. Why does it have to be like that? I don’t understand. It’s just some random, stupid line. How can anyone tell people where they can and can’t go?”
I liked that the book doesn’t offer pat solutions. There is no epiphany that fixes everything. Rather, recovery is a long, difficult process. Julia will probably never be close to her mother. But they eventually figure out some compromises. Ultimately, Julia is able to move away, and, even though it is emotionally devastating to her parents that she doesn’t choose the closeness of a “traditional” Mexican extended family, it is easy to see that it is necessary for Julia’s mental health. Connor isn’t the man who will save Julia. No man is. She has to find her way. But Connor is a friend, and a good one. And that is okay too. Just like Lorena is a friend, and a good one in her own way. Part of Julia’s journey is to learn to accept friendship from Connor and Lorena and Juanga and Mr. Ingman. Julia also benefits from those shockingly secular forms of help: therapy and medication. (Both were considered suspect in the Fundie subculture I grew up in.) But neither is a panacea - she still has to work through her problems, and learn more healthy ways of thinking. There is no “happy ending.” But neither is there a tragedy at the end. Instead, life is what it is, people move on, and make the best of what they have.
I mentioned above that there was a lot that seemed familiar. And there was. My teen years were not the easiest, and for some of the same - or at least similar - reasons. At the heart of both is a cultural anxiety, compounded by a personality clash. The last five or so years have really confirmed to me that religion and politics and culture are inseparable. In fact, for the most part and in most cases, religion has next to nothing to do with doctrinal beliefs, and everything to do with tribal identification - that is, culture and politics. As a corollary, doctrinal differences are far less important than cultural and political differences. I.e., one can be a heretic more easily than one can make different cultural choices.
This is apparent in the story in that Julia, unlike her traditional Catholic parents, is an atheist. Which matters to her a lot, but isn’t even on the radar for her parents. Rather, what sets Julia’s mother off is culture. Julia hates cooking, and indeed hates everything about being a traditional Mexican woman. It just plain doesn’t work for her. Her dreams, her best life, her calling, is different. She probably doesn’t want to be a mother. She may or may not wish to marry. (And certainly not, if that means that she has to be a traditional wife and mother.) She doesn’t want to dress in a girly manner. She doesn’t want to observe the niceties of social politeness. And so on. Some of these are perhaps not healthy, but most of them are who she is.
It is easy enough to explain Julia’s parents, because they are all around us. (At least those of us in areas with significant numbers of immigrants from around the world.) The culture they find themselves in is different, inexplicable, and therefore scary. For many, they respond with terror that they are “losing” their children and their culture. Which isn’t entirely untrue as to the second one. As to the first? Well, it depends on how they handle it, doesn’t it? This fear, this terror, this endless cultural anxiety is what rings the most true to me.
My parents didn’t start out raising us in a rigid environment, full of terror about cultural change. That came later. In fact, it happened at a seriously awkward time in my life - my teens. It was at that point that Bill Gothard entered our life, with his promises that if my parents Just Followed The Right Rules™, we would turn out to be proper political and cultural (and therefore religious) clones of them. And by feeding the natural fear of social change, and imbuing it with literal heaven and hell consequences, this led to unnecessary and damaging conflict. I wish I could say that it ended when I moved out, but the opposite is true. My teen years were, I believe, quite survivable. We could have moved on and had a healthy relationship. But we didn’t. And we didn’t because the Culture Wars™ never ended. My mom in particular wanted a Perfect Fundie Daughter-in-law, and engaged in many of the same destructive behaviors that Julia’s mother inflicted on her. Not being a teen stuck at home, and having a better set of tools at her disposal, my wife got the hell out of the situation. (A much more healthy approach than attempting suicide, to be sure.) But that’s not the only part of the story. The emotional issues have really never ended for me either, because the war has never ended. Not really. I am not the perfect son, by a long shot. And because of Gothard and others like him, this fact is inseparable from the idea that I am in rebellion against God, which is why political and cultural differences ultimately destroyed what might have been. So, listening to this book dredged up a lot of feelings from my teens, and some of the trauma that still persists from those years - and the toxic beliefs that eventually destroyed relationships. Julia says what I felt so often as a teen:
“I don’t understand why everyone just complains about who I am. What am I supposed to do? Say I’m sorry? I’m sorry I can’t be normal? I’m sorry I’m such a bad daughter? I’m sorry I hate the life that I have to live?”
Also really resonating is that Julia’s parents aren’t trying to hurt her. They want the best for her...as they understand what is best. Julia should get a job in an office with air conditioning, not manual labor. She should marry a reasonably well-off man, and have grandchildren, and learn to make tortillas to make her man happy. Likewise, that fantasy is threatened more than anything else by the idea that Julia might get pregnant. So so much of their unnecessary fighting takes place over things that have no actual relevance to anything. They are perceived as being related to Julia’s sex life, but for most of the book, she isn’t even interested in boys. And when she does have sex, she (and he) are responsible about it.
The most haunting part of the book, of course, is the ghost of Olga. Or, perhaps, the multiple ghosts of Olga. There is Olga, the Perfect Mexican Daughter, which is how Julia’s parents will always remember her. And Julia will never, ever, ever, to the end of her life, live up to that paragon. (Damn, I relate to that one.) But there is also Olga the real person. Who is pretty flawed, and far from perfect. As we find out (SPOILER ALERT!), Olga was pregnant by a married man at the time of her death. In reality, she is everything her parents feared about Julia.
And yet, Julia is the one who will always be denigrated as “not Olga.”
And yes, I relate to that one. A lot.
And also to the terror about unmarried sex, which is pretty much what Fundie Subculture tells teens. Of all the important stuff we could and should be learning as we become adults, the obsession is with “don’t have sex!” And what makes one a good or bad person in that subculture is a combination of virginity (particularly for women) and an embrace of cultural gender roles (also, particularly for women.) It’s something not everyone can - or even wants - to live up to. And many of our parents haven’t handled our rejection of the subculture particularly well.
One thing that I am very glad of in retrospect is that I am not of a suicidal temperament. I have sometimes joked that I was more homicidal than suicidal, but that seems to be a bad way to put it in the post-Columbine era. I am not homicidal either, actually. Instead, I am an authority-pleaser and divergent thinker, which is a tough combination. I kind of swung between trying so damn hard to do everything right and be perfect - and believe all the things I was taught - then, when I couldn’t stand the cognitive dissonance, rebelling. Lather, rinse, repeat. It hasn’t been easy on my psyche, unfortunately, and turned out to be a terrible fit with American religion. Which is why I haven’t been part of it for the last four years. (Mostly a relief, but also complicated.) Also, however, the cycle didn’t work once third parties - my wife and kids - came into the picture. My responsibility was to them, not to the doctrines, not to the culture, not to my parents.
And that is kind of the final bit of relating. The final scene is hopeful, but also lacerating. Julia leaves for New York - and you understand that she is never coming back. She will occasionally see her parents, but...it’s over. (My understanding is that this is a somewhat autobiographical part of the book.) Julia will live her life, become a writer (her dream), and perhaps never marry or have kids. Or maybe she will. It’s her life to live now. And her parents are left crying on the train platform. (Now, if Olga had lived, and actually been who they thought she was, perhaps they would have been fine with Julia going away…) One does wonder what might have been.
It’s an interesting book. And I didn’t really expect to have such an emotional response to it, but there you have it.
I also should give a shout-out to Kyla Garcia, who narrates the audiobook. She apparently has a long list of audiobook credits, and for good reason. She is simply fantastic in this one, truly inhabiting the various characters and making their voices so different and unique that you never wonder who is talking. And this includes regional accents, both American and Mexican. There were a number of times I literally forgot that there was just one person doing all the voices. I am putting Garcia on my list of favorite narrators.
Last minute update: I ran across a quote by Abraham Piper - yes, the rebel son of prominent Calvinist preacher (of "women should stay and be abused" fame) John Piper. And it really sums up things a bit.
"Do you know how boring and soul-sucking it is to base your whole life on making sure other people change to become more like you?"