Find it at a local indie!
- Why I read it: College, family issues, wrong side of the tracks, culture clash
- Disclosure: Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley. Thanks!
"Another day finished, gracias a Dios."After a number of disappointing 2011 debuts, I was more than a little worried that my first year participating in the Debut Author Challenge would be a bust. Surely, I thought, they have to have found at least one author this year that we'll remember in ten years. Or even five years. Right? Right, I decided about 50 pages into What Can(t) Wait, and her name is Ashley Hope Perez.
Seventeen-year-old Marisa's mother has been saying this for as long as Marisa can remember. Her parents came to Houston from Mexico. They work hard, and they expect Marisa to help her familia. And they expect her to marry a boy from the neighborhood, to settle down, and to have grandbabies. If she wants a job, she could always be an assistant manager at the local grocery store.
At school, it's another story. Marisa's calc teacher expects her to ace the AP test and to get into an engineering program in Austin—a city that seems unimaginably far away. When her home life becomes unbearable, Marisa seeks comfort elsewhere—and suddenly neither her best friend nor boyfriend can get through to her. Caught between the expectations of two different worlds, Marisa isn't sure what she wants—other than a life where she doesn't end each day thanking God it's over.
What Can't Wait—the gripping debut novel from Ashley Hope Pérez—tells the story of one girl's survival in a world in which family needs trump individual success, and self-reliance the only key that can unlock the door to the future.
I know I've ranted and raved about how every PoC/diversity book these days seems to be an issue book, and I stand by that. I should be able to find as many different sorts of characters in my chick lit and humorous novels as I do in my heavyweights. What Can(t) Wait, however, is an eloquent reminder of why we have issue books in the first place - to remind teens that actually face these issues that they're not alone. Perez accomplishes this with incredible heart and wit, keeping me as engrossed in Marisa's story as I was, I kid you not, in the Vampire Academy series.
It's hard to put my finger on exactly what made this book work for me, simply because everything was so much greater than the sum of its parts would lead you to believe. Other than a slow and somewhat awkward beginning, it's almost flawless in its execution, and the strength of its plot - its subtle subversion of stereotypes - left me with that sort of achy feeling I get when I know I will never, ever write a book as good as the one I'm reading.
If I had to pick some highlights, I'd start with the fact that Marisa's strength is freaking calculus, which comes out of left field when compared to a lot of similar YA novels where the parents want the kid to do well at math or science when the kid is really good at the arts, which I think is a lot of author projection and autobiography at play. Second, Marisa's (also Mexican immigrant) boyfriend is a genuinely nice guy - and here's the best part - with depth. I'm tired of the machismo bad boy image of so many YA love interests (looking at you, Jace), but also equally exhausted by the two-dimensional good guy, and Perez manages to avoid both tropes.
Finally, I've said it before and I'll say it again, I love when YA protagonists actually have to work to make ends meet. It's a much more realistic reflection of the teen experience (certainly my experience) than inexplicably rich or upper middle class kids, and I think it can be just as funny, romantic, and even escapist when done right, as it is here. Marisa finding things to be funny about even when her life sucks? (The scene where she sings "Sexy Back," anyone?) I was fist pumping SO HARD, because that's my life.
Maybe that's what made this book work for me: the fact that, even though we live in radically different families and circumstances - I can't imagine my family wanting me to get married over going to college, for example - I could associate with Marisa so well, and I imagine other teens would be able to, too. Good storytelling, in my book (pun fully intended), is a writer taking the very specific and making it general, and that's exactly what Perez does here.
Her next novel, The Knife and the Butterfly? Definitely going on pre-order, guys.
In short, it's an issue book that gives me exactly what I want out of an issue book while never really feeling like an issue book, and not only one of this year's best debuts, but one of its best YA novels so far, period. Five out of five stars.