I started reading I Am not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez three times. The first time, I think I read about page 45. The second time I stopped at page 173. This time I finished the book.
I don’t know why I stopped and started so many times. However, I know that if I put a book down, I usually will try to pick it back up because sometimes I’m just not in the right place for a book. I recently restarted Force of Nature by Jane Harper after stopping at page 25. I just wasn’t in the right place the first time I picked it up. It happens. The second time I picked it up, I plowed right through, loving every minute of it.
I got I Am not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter at a reading/signing in 2017. I was super excited to read the book. I think one of the reasons I was excited to read the book was that the author talked about a mystery the main character was on. The book opens with Julia at her sister Olga’s funeral. Olga was tragically killed in an accident. Shortly after Olga’s death Julia is going through her sister’s room and she finds some sexy underwear and a hotel key. This does not fit with Julia’s impression of Olga, who she feels is her parents’ perfect daughter. So Julia is determined to uncover Olga’s secret life.
When I started the book, I thought I was going to be hunting down Olga’s life with Julia. What I didn’t realize is that Olga’s secret life is only one storyline–and not the main storyline. As I started reading this time, I realized how incredibly broken and wounded Julia is. She is this way before Olga’s death, and she only becomes worse after Olga died. Sanchez does a brilliant job weaving Julia’s isolation from friends, family, school in with her grief, and then she adds some guilt in to just make Julia’s pain palpable to the reader.
As the tension in the novel builds, Julia says, “I’m tired of feeling like the rest of the world always gets to decide what I can do” (Sanchez 210). To this point, this appears to be the main problem in the book. Julia is grieving her sister and she has no agency or control over her life. Any misstep and her mother grounds her, cutting her off from the few friends she has and cutting her off from writing and the library. Julia is literally under her mother’s control. A little way down the page she says, “What is the point of living if I can’t ever get what I want? This doesn’t feel like a life; it feels like a never-ending punishment. My body shivers, and the thoughts in my head become hot, confusing swirls. I can’t seem to breathe right” (Sanchez 210). It is at this point that everything pivots. And I realized the book isn’t about Olga’s death and uncovering her secret life. The book is about Julia’s mental health.
Julia is not difficult. She’s not ill bred or rude. Julia is depressed. Julia has anxiety. Julia has lived with this her whole life. No one identified it. Instead she’s called sensitive-as if this is a bad thing. She’s called bad mannered. She’s continually being told that her actions are inappropriate. So she grows up owning the labels that other ascribe to her. Until Olga dies. Then her depression and anxiety along with her grief become simply too much to bear. I would like to say the book ends on a happy note with her parents suddenly understanding her and changing their ways. It doesn’t. Instead it ends on a hopeful note. Julia begins a journey of self discovery. One that allows her the opportunity to see her parents as she never did before and try to understand them. As she tries to understand them, she also starts to try to understand and like herself.
This is a book that is beautiful and multilayered and talks honestly about how complex mental illness is and can be. It’s a book does not break depression down into a one-dimensional illness that is the same for everyone. Julia can see her mother’s depression, but she doesn’t see (or admit) her own. Or her father’s. Or her sister’s. Each character exhibits the symptoms of depression a little differently. It’s a book that also looks at mental illness through a cultural lens. And it’s also about finding identity. Who is Julia in Chicago? Who is Julia in Mexico? Who will Julia become when she starts college? Who is Julia as she learns about and treats her anxiety and depression?
So I thought this book was about Julia searching for her sister and uncovering her sister’s secrets, but it really is about Julia searching for herself and uncovering the secrets she’s kept hidden away from herself.