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Sisters. 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 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
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.
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.
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