Basically, I’m the last saving grace for the Sanchez family. There’s some unwritten family commandment that states that I will graduate from Somerset, attend an Ivy League school, and major in some moneymaking profession. The pressure is on to excel. They don’t call me Princesa for nothing. I’m being groomed for bigger and better things.
The Education of Margot Sanchez, by Lilliam Rivera

 

Fifteen-year-old Margot Sanchez has just finished up her first year at Somerset Prep. Somerset is pricey, it’s prestigious, and it’s extremely white—at Somerset, Margot is the only student from her South Bronx neighborhood, and the only Latina.

She did her best to blend in: she toned down her wardrobe from bright and vintage to “tame [and] chic,” she straightened her curls, she started listening to Taylor Swift, she befriended the most popular girls in her class. Andddd… she stole her Papi’s credit card and went on a shopping spree with her new friends, racking up $600 in bills and losing the trust of both of her parents in the process. And that’s why she’s spending the summer working off her debt in her father’s grocery store instead of staying at a friend’s beach house, partying it up in the Hamptons.

The Education of Margot Sanchez is a frustrating read. It’s got the bones of a solid coming-into-her-own story, but reads more like an early draft than a completely finished novel. The pacing and character growth are choppy, and sometimes feel like they’re being forced to fit into a story outline rather than moving organically.

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There’s also a LOT going on: family drama, infidelity, and unplanned pregnancy; drug abuse and drug trafficking; romantic quandaries; the shift and change and growth within an old friendship; the power dynamics of entering a new-to-you group of friends; being true to one’s self while figuring out how to navigate an unfamiliar world; economic class and gentrification and prejudice and sexism and colorism. That, in itself, isn’t unrealistic—we all, at any given point in our lives, are dealing with multiple moral hardships—but with so many storylines and themes, very few of them are explored with much depth or nuance.

Since there’s so much in here, readers will likely disagree on what they see as the heart of the book. I saw it as about female friendships, and about respect and loyalty within those friendships. Due to her school move, Margot is dealing with a soft estrangement from her lifelong best friend, and that arc feels honest and real and mostly emotionally satisfying. Her relationship with her mother is full of mother-daughter frustrations and disagreements, and ultimately results in Margot’s understanding of her mother as a person, and not just a wife and mother.

While her new friends, Camille and Serena, read more like stereotypical Mean Rich Girls than individuals—and while their sudden change in behavior at the end feels like it serves the plotting more than it does the characters—those dynamics are still richer and more interesting than either of Margot’s romances. On that front, bluntly: both romances could have been cut, and the book would have been stronger for it.

Nutshell: This is a book in which the parts are stronger than the whole.

The moments in which Margot identifies and is infuriated by the double standards in her own family, for instance—that her brother is afforded so much more leniency than she is, that he is expected to move from romantic entanglement to romantic entanglement, while she isn’t even allowed to date—ring entirely true for her voice and her character, and they ultimately serve the story and the characters. Margot has a moment late in the book where she realizes that the sexist “Latino macho bullshit,” as she puts it, has ultimately hurt her brother, too. Which is hugely profound for her, both because it’s a Big Important Epiphany and because it’s an example of her shifting her perspective and focus not only to someone other than herself, but someone who she has clashed with so often. And it all happens in the space of a few sentences.

A mixed bag, to be sure—but a debut with loads of potential, and I’ll definitely be watching for Rivera’s next book.

In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.