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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Daughters

Cover imagesSisters. Parents. Family. Children of immigrants. Starred reviews. National Book Award recognition. These books have quite a bit in common, not least in terms of love and buzz and people talk-talk-talking. Both novels examine generational expectations, both examine daughters who long to be artists, and both novels illustrate how daughters and their parents move around each other in complicated patterns, trying to understand each other. They’re not entirely similar — while Perkins uses different perspectives and voices to tell the story of one family’s experiences, Sánchez focuses on Julia’s voice to give an understanding of her family. Perkins’ You Bring the Distant Near got four stars, and Sánchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter received two stars. With intense focus from the NBA (YBDN made the longlist; IAMYPMD was a finalist), what will RealCommittee have to say about these two titles?

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter coverI Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sánchez
Knopf, October 2017
Reviewed from final copy; 2 stars

I am going back and forth and all over the place about this book. I loved it! I reveled in reading it! I wanted to imagine the committee conversation about it! This was just the right combination of voice and feels and thinking and voice and MY EMOTIONS. It’s been buzzed about all over the place — we had a LOT of love in the comments here, too —  and was a finalist for the NBA.

So I’ll start with what definitely, totally, absolutely worked for me. Sánchez’s characterization, particularly the women in the immediate Reyes family, were so relatable. And Julia — her voice was so immediate, so passionate, I felt like she was talking to me, like maybe I listened to the book on audio. She sounds like a teenager, yes, and she sounds like a teenager who wants to be a writer, too — a reader who soaks up words and ideas. (“The only thing that makes sense to me is what Walt Whitman said about death.” “I want to get all Bartleby about it” “I remember a line from a poem I read a while ago about terror being the beginning of beauty.” — all so casual, yet all carefully included.) I had other people I liked in the book — Lorena, obviously, and Olga, with her layers and secrets, and Amá, too.

I read this book in one sitting; I couldn’t put it down, it made me cry, and I wanted to think about it and talk about it all the next day. However, now that some time has passed and I actually have to write this review, maybe, it seems, some of my feelings have cooled. Or shifted. Or something.

Possibly part of what’s throwing me off is that the flap copy had me thinking that the Olga mystery was going to be more central to the plot. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that this wasn’t a story of sleuthing because instead what we have is a story of secrets, and the way they shape everything even though they’re invisible. (Same as It’s Not Like It’s a Secret, actually, hmmmm.) This authorial choice made space for a thoughtful and respectful conversation about mental health, and a beautiful examination of generational expectations, generational misunderstandings, and ultimately of generational love.

This is also a book with a plot that feels meandery; it covers nearly two years, and it touches on a lot of topics; its scope is maybe not vast, but…ambitious. And despite all that time passing, this book feels crowded to me. I don’t know if that’s a pacing problem or if something is underdeveloped.

It’s a crowded cast, and maybe that’s what has me spinning. Julia has a few important mentors — but Mr Ingman and Dr Cooke both fit into tropes. Her immediate family is very well developed, but her extended family (both in Chicago and in Los Ojos) just don’t get as much page time and feel quite blurry. There are a lot of acquaintance names dropped through the pages, but they never really start to feel like real characters.

In my original notes, I said that I thought the biggest flaw might be, ironically, related to the voice: there is so much narration rather than dialogue/letting things play out. So although I totally believe that this teenager from Chicago is telling me this story, sometimes I wanted less narrative compression and summary. Maybe that adds to my impression of crowded-ness?

So I guess my feelings have shifted, but I’m not sure where exactly they’ve shifted to. Do I think this will take a medal? Quite possibly? Where I am now, I’d say no — there’s just too much that either didn’t quite go anywhere or felt wrapped up too quickly. But! An NBA shortlist title? If I were on RealCommittee, I’d definitely give this another read to settle my thoughts (and feelings). And then I might find myself with a different vote. Maybe you are more settled? Care to weigh in? –Sarah

You Bring the Distant Near coverYou Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
Farrar Strauss Giroux, September 2017
Reviewed from final e-copy; 4 stars

What a lovely, meandering, intergenerational portrait of a book this was. It leapfrogs through its timeline, covering 33 years and three generations of women; Bangladeshi Ranee, her two Indian-born, but London and then US-raised daughters, and finally their daughters, one raised in Harlem and the other mostly in India until high school.

In some ways this reads like a series of connected short stories, something like Strout’s Olive Kittredge; the two most standalone “stories” are the opening and closings, both standouts. But like any short story collection, there’s some unevenness to contend with. The first section — which is also has the tightest continuous timeline — balances some beautiful writing with heavy info-dumping, and it takes Sonia in particular a few chapters before her voice fully coheres — the decision to include snippets of her diary entries, in an already first-person, present-tense narrative is largely the culprit. Narrator Sonia has an incredibly strong voice, but diary Sonia sounds younger and much less sophisticated.

(Narrator Sonia may be too sophisticated — even her political self is already deeply formed, and in ways that feel accurate for a young woman of color in America in the early 70s, but the text never explains how she got there. The leapfrogging of the text makes these kinds of omissions typical, but for most of the other elements that happen off page it’s easy to draw the line from a previous witnessed moment. The Sonia at the opening doesn’t necessarily feel like an extension of the girl we see in the swim competition, but the later Sonia is clearly the person we see in her first narrated chapter.)

The first section is the closest this book gets to a being a traditional novel and is the weakest section; it sets up for the payload of the full narrative arc, but it’s not significantly different from other immigration stories and the thematic scope is not as visible yet.

The later sections — which cover five and eight years, respectively, to part ones’s two years — are much richer than that first part. Perkins shines with the more episodic chapters; she uses small moments to bring home the themes of family — particularly mothers and daughters — and identity and to illuminate her characters through selective details rather than comprehensive portraits. Her sense of timing and willingness to end chapters on open thoughts forces the reader to engage more deeply with Sonia and Tara and then Anna and Chantal. The two most powerful chapters, however, are the two third-person, close-perspective chapters from Ranee, which close out each of parts two and three. Ranee’s pain after her husband’s death, delivered in such quiet, still writing, is palpable. In “No Translation,” the part two closer, Ranee’s anger — at Sonia, for falling in love with a black man; at her husband, for dying; at herself, for her own failures to love and accept — and her sorrow, in just a few short pages, completely rewrite the woman the reader has previously only seen through Sonia and Tara’s eyes and turn the book into Ranee’s story. And her story is worth reading; her journey is the most compelling of the five journeys covered, and she is the character who shows the most change and development. The final chapter, in which we see how she has remade her life but not (despite the crazy, almost comic interlude of “Off the Deep End”) let go of the core of her identity: a Bangladeshi woman, a widow, a mother and grandmother, and an American — I defy any reader to get to that point and not tear up. It’s a deeply satisfying ending to her story.

But it also points to the biggest flaw here, which is that no one else is as interesting and no other sections are as well written; didactic moments and exposition weigh down many of the first-person chapters, although there are exceptions –notably Tara’s “Land Where My Fathers Died” and Chantal’s “The Porsche Factor.” Anna and Sonia, who are cut from the same cloth (activists who straddle identities and work for change and need the comfort of family and home to sustain them, but who develop relatively little throughout the text) between them have the lion’s share of the page count, despite being the least interesting from a character perspective given that they both seem to have been born fully actualized.

The strong moments mostly outweigh the weak, and it all adds up to a good book, even a really good book — but it’s easy to see that Perkins has a great book inside her, and this isn’t quite it, despite its many virtues. –Karyn

Note: As I was uploading the cover image, I noticed the tagline”Five Girls. Three Generations. One Great American Love Story.” Which reminded me that the other thing I didn’t love about this was that sometimes it felt downright Jingo-istic, in a way that made me think of the references to MESSAGE in the Printz criteria; I definitely felt some all-caps messaging happening.

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About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Both of these would be contenders for me. They are among the very few stories that stood out this year, even with all their flaws.

  2. I read IANYPMD months ago and don’t remember many details from it, but it’s been clear that it stuck with other readers more, and I’m interested to go back to it at some point.

    YBTDN, though, is one of my favourite books this year. I actually found the Sonia sections the most compelling and was sad to leave her behind for the third generation (though seeing her as a non-narrator parent was fun). I’d be interested to talk more about the presence of religion in the story, and the movement toward Christianity–are the parts that feel MESSAGE-y and jingoistic to you in the tradition of a parable? (The Porsche story sure felt that way to me, and not in a bad way.)

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Yes, let’s talk about the religion stuff, because it really bothered me, a knee-jerk reaction to Christianity as shortcut for “becoming American.” But I wasn’t sure what to do with that response, and it’s so visceral that I thought maybe it was purely personal. However, the jingo-istic bits to me were not that tightly tied to the move towards Christianity; it was more the Somali friend — Jenna? — and Ranee’s overwhelming love for the US — even when Jenna is attacked. Do people really feel that way? I feel like people can love a place and still be clear-eyed about it’s flaws, but there was a rah-rah U.S. note here that felt a little pointed — “Immigrants love the US, treat them well!” that wasn’t very well integrated. (I think “treat them well” should be baseline, not be dependent on declared love, but regardless it’s less the message itself that is the point and more that it felt like there was an agenda shining through, which is not great writing.)

      • I don’t think it’s just you! The first wave of conversion reminded me that, years ago, I read some of Perkins’s writing about third-culture missionary kids and Christian parenting, and it definitely shifted some of the genre lenses I was applying. Ranee’s slow embrace of Christianity in her later years, in particular, felt much more like a move out of inspirational fiction (see? she’s going to go to heaven!), and on THAT scale, it felt subtle. But I don’t know if that was the author’s intent, or even what to do with that by the Printz criteria. (This isn’t a defense of Christianity-as-shorthand-for-Americanism, just me picking at my own brain and figuring out what rarely-used centers kicked in automatically for me.)

        Thanks for clarifying your concern about the MESSAGE versus the overall quality of storytelling; I definitely see that and don’t disagree.

        • Karyn Silverman says:

          Kate, I had no idea about Perkins’ own religious background, but I went digging after this comment and found a bit of her writing on her own shift to Christianity, and it’s changed my feelings about the book; what was vaguely awkward as a clumsy metaphor for American identity becomes proselytizing and MESSAGE indeed with this context, and now I really don’t think it was me; I think it’s a quantifiable flaw in the writing, with authorial purpose dictating character arcs; it seemed a little unreasonable for Ranee (who holds pretty deeply to traditions rooted in her Hinduism) to embrace church, but again I thought it was intended as a metaphor so I was being generous.

  3. I liked IANYPMD well enough, but despite me cheering it for being #ownvoices, there were some moments that felt strangely stereotypical to me. Which I suppose makes sense, but the same aspects written by a non #ownvoices writer might not have been so easily excused. Mostly, though, I just found much of the writing to be fairly pedestrian. And the issues felt piled-on by the end. I think it’s a fine collection book, and I look forward to more by the author, but this one didn’t seem to rise to award-worthy to me, despite it making the NBA shortlist.

  4. Although both books are important, I don’t think either is strong enough for Printz.

    Daughter-I felt like the author tried to put too much into the book and therefore many themes/topics were underdeveloped. The suicide attempt and counsel group seemed like an afterthought when this topic deserves more attention especially since suicide among Latin Americans is missing in YA.

    Distance-The beginning was pretty good but there was too much telling and not enough showing. I would have like to learn more about Indian/English immigrants in 1970’s predominantly Black NYC but it was overshadowed with the sisters issues which I have read before-the beautiful daughter who is groomed to marry and the smart daughter who wants independence. I don’t feel like this voice was new. The pacing was too fast in the middle around the father’s death and then we jump to Sonia’s daughter which again didn’t have a unique voice. I also read Love, Hate, and Other Filters right before this and the voice was similar so that may have had an effect.

    Important books to have in the collection but I wouldn’t say they added new themes or voices.

  5. I’m very happy both of these books exist but neither of them worked for me personally. Even professionally, distance has made me see more problems than my initial reading.

    With I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter I completely agree that the plot meanders too much and covers so many things that it fails to explore anything well. I thought this book hit a lot of the same notes as Gabi, A Girl in Pieces but in the comparison it’s easy to see how much more tightly Gabi is plotted. The way the mystery surrounding Olga is handled (and the ultimate resolution) left me frustrated.

    I wanted to love You Bring the Distant Near but the beauty of the individual pieces never gelled for me and I agree the most interesting characters had the least page time. The way religion plays into the character development was uncomfortable and further detracted from some of the good here.

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