Simon & Schuster (2017)
In the summer between her freshman and sophomore year, Margot had been looking forward to carefree days in the Hamptons with her new private-school friends, Serena and Camille. But their pressure for her to look the upper class part leads her to charge $600 on her father’s credit card and now she’s been forced to spend her summer vacation working in one of the family’s “two sad-looking supermarkets in the Bronx” to pay back the debt. “Papi is delusional,” Margot says, “if he thinks I’ll stay locked up in this depressing grocery world.”
Margot’s parents, coming to the mainland from Puerto Rico and now living in the upper middle class enclave of Riverdale (“Rich Adjacent,” as Margo calls it), want her to appreciate how hard they’ve worked. But Margot resents their strict rules about whom she can and cannot befriend, as well as the sexism that allows her older brother to get away with so much more while still inheriting the family business.
Margot’s summer of quiet rebellion leads her into the arms of Moises, a former drug user turned community organizer, of whom she naïvely muses: “Who wouldn’t want to drop everything and sign his petition when social justice and a side of seduction are being served?” But she cannot show her true self to him, any more than she can show it to Serena, Camille, and blond heartthrob Nick, whom she dreams of seeing at the end of the summer—if her parents let her off for good behavior. Under the surface, though, the entire Sanchez façade is beginning to crack, as a cashier training Margot turns up pregnant, Junior loses weight and has mood swings, and Mom cleans house through it all.
Margot, whose self-centered behavior has landed her the summer at the grocery store, struggles to see the world through others’ eyes. She blames her former best friend Elizabeth for dumping her, but Elizabeth, who now attends a public high school for the arts, turns out to be there for Margot—with a dose of tough love—when Serena and Camille vanish. Elizabeth, Moises, and cashierista Jasmine ultimately are the ones who educate Margot in the complexities of race, gender, and class that she has blithely ignored in her pursuit of social status. Her questioning herself is a painful process; for instance, she compares herself to Moises:
How does he do it? He’s had a rough childhood, from what Jasmine told me, yet that doesn’t stop him from always lending a hand. How does a person go from dealing drugs to pulling weeds? Maybe some people are born good no matter their circumstances. What if I was born to be selfish?
Lilliam Rivera’s debut novel is funny and wise. It places the reader in the middle of a gentrifying Bronx, seeing the changes from the point of view of a family whose business is threatened by the Trader Joes and Whole Foods that the new residents welcome. Yet the Sanchezes are not innocent either, as they look down on the struggling residents of the neighborhoods that their supermarkets serve. Like Renee Watson’s excellent 2015 novel This Side of Home, The Education of Margot Sanchez raises questions about urban space and class for which there are no pat answers. Along with this broader theme is a compelling story about a teenage girl caught between the image she is supposed to present and the person she wants to become. The Education of Margot Sanchez is highly recommended.
A shorter version of this review first appeared in The Pirate Tree (thepiratetree.com). We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.