Sunday, April 19, 2015

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces

Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos Press) is a hilarious and powerful young adult novel with an unforgettable character in Gabi, la gordita, seeking to be true to her independence and integrity while she navigates the disasters and dramas of her senior year in high school. Quintero has created a voice that will resonate for many years to come. I hope this book will find the legions of readers it deserves, students, parents, teachers, and beyond.

Gabriela Hernandez starts a journal right before senior year, and it is this taboo-breaking, gut-spilling text where Gabi is true to herself, where she chronicles her confusions and declarations about being “a bastard child,” teenage sex and pregnancy, being too Mexican or not Mexican enough, her love of food, especially Hot-Cheetos, and society’s hypocritical expectations and pressures on young women, especially Chicanas. Gabi’s journal writing is profane, funny, revealing, and wise, but her experiences and decisions during her last year in high school will keep the reader riveted to the story.

Gabi struggles with her weight and self-image, yet she finds an outlet in writing when a teacher, Ms. Abernard, nurtures her poetry, recommends “secret reading lists” to Gabi and her classmates, and encourages them to read their poetry at a coffeehouse, The Grind Effect. Gabi has early crushes on Joshua Moore and Eric Ramirez, and has never been kissed. But she will change that soon enough, with the aroma of Hot-Cheetos on her “soft luscious lips.”

Meanwhile, Gabi’s two best friends have dramas of their own. Sebastian reveals to Gabi that he’s gay, which goes well, but when Sebastian reveals this to his father the son is kicked out of the house. Sebastian ends up staying with Gabi. Another best friend, Cindy gets pregnant by German, “one of those guys who knows he’s super hot and assumes girls HAVE to like him.” Gabi witnesses the birth of Cindy’s baby and wonders “how something so utterly disgusting can be so utterly beautiful at the same time.” Later, Cindy will confide a secret to Gabi that will cause la gordita to turn (justifiably) violent.

Gabi’s family is also a mess around her, and she must endure, explain, and overcome them. Her father is a methamphetamine addict, who is missing from home for days at a time. Gabi loves and hates her mother, who harangues her about her weight and constantly admonishes her to keep her ‘ojos abiertos y las piernas cerradas.’ Gabi listens and doesn’t listen to her mother’s advice, yet it is the mother who ends up pregnant after having unprotected sex. Beto, Gabi’s younger brother, skips school to paint graffiti art, and seems lost without his father. At the end of senior year, as Gabi is applying to the University of California at Berkeley, she must take whatever steps are necessary to go beyond this family and her life at Santa Maria de Los Rosales High School.

Gabi is in pieces in more ways than one: with emotions that contradict each other, with expectations and pressures that pull her every which way, with “jiggly goodies” in awkward dresses, and with crushes on boys she thinks she likes and those she learns to love. She is trying to put her self together, like a jigsaw puzzle, making mistakes and discovering solutions on the fly, her heart on her sleeve, with a verve that often astonishes the reader. If this is not one of best contemporary books about the teenage soul, I don’t know what is. 

Perhaps the best achievement of Isabel Quintero’s “Gabi, a Girl in Pieces” is what it says about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ about teenage sexuality, and how many adults are captive to a moral system that often denies them their best sense of self. You can be responsible, you can be honest about who you are and what you want, and you can empower yourself, if you can only survive the treacherous shoals of those teenage years. Like Gabi, you will need a razor-sharp wit and family and friends, as long as they don’t screw you up too much. You will need a ferocious independence, even when you see yourself with so many faults and limitations. Finally, you will need an integrity that demands you be true to your emerging self, always.

(This book review originally appeared in the El Paso Times on April 19, 2015.)