“Being brown and broke has been a seventeen-year-test in just how badly I want an average life… Why does the valedictorian have to choose between my class ring and this SAT prep class? Why does a clean-cut teenager have to decide between showing up to my minimum-wage job and going to the movies with the most popular girl in school? Why do I have to fight so hard just for the mere chance to have it all?” (pg. 52. Quotes taken from ARC – language is subject to change.)
Efrain Rodriguez is the highest-achieving student at his high school in the South Bronx, and despite lots of people telling him that he will never get in (and couldn’t pay for it even if he did), he has his heart set on the Ivy Leagues. But money weighs heavily on his mind – his mom is working long hours just to get by, and his dad hasn’t exactly taken a strong interest in Efrain’s life since having a baby with his new girlfriend. Efrain feels like he needs to take his financial situation into his own hands, and his afterschool tutoring job doesn’t cut it anymore. So when an old friend who deals drugs approaches him with a chance to make a lot of money fast, Efrain thinks about all those choices he is forced to make in his life because of money. He surprises himself by saying yes.
As Efrain is drawn deeper into the world of dealing, and as his lies to friends and family multiply, the reader can feel the moment when everything falls apart looming over Efrain. You know that it’s coming, and that the fallout is going to be awful – it’s just a matter of when. And if that reader is me, the reader will be banging her head against a wall and shouting “No Efrain Stop Stop Stop No!” Because he genuinely doesn’t want this life, and he really doesn’t need this life if he will allow himself to rely on the people around him. But when Efrain starts to list the things that are stacked against him, you can feel his desperation and start to understand how he could possibly make this decision that goes against every part of his judgment and his sense of morality.
Efrain’s relationships with his girlfriend, mother, and sister, are well drawn, but his relationships with the men in his life are especially complex. Efrain grew up with two best friends, Chingy and Nestor, but the group split when Nestor started dealing drugs. Chingy will no longer have anything to do with Nestor, and his changing relationships with these two boys over the course of the book are one of the most compelling parts of the story. Nestor, who brings Efrain in to the drug trade, could easily have been a stereotype of the bad drug-dealing kid. At first glance that is all you see. But as the story digs down a little bit deeper into his life, he becomes a genuinely sympathetic character – a choice that makes the story much more interesting and less reductive. Efrain’s relationship with his absentee father follows a similar arc.
I did find the dialogue uneven, especially between Efrain and Chingy – sometimes it flowed freely and genuinely, and other times it sounded a little bit like a skit written by a guidance counselor about getting in to college. Efrain and Chingy go from slangy, loose conversations to this:
“In order to be as accurate as possible, I couldn’t just develop one code. I had to create a unique algorithm for each and every college.”
It takes me a second to grasp his point. “Because Hunter College may place more emphasis on your SAT score than, say, Harvard might?”
“Exactly! And there’s no way to assess that unless you talk to someone at every admissiosn office or, better yet, compile statistics on incoming freshmen.” (pg. 81. Quotes taken from ARC – language is subject to change.)
Suddenly we’re inside some kind of college admissions manual. I appreciate that the author is trying to get some information on college admissions into the hands of teens who pick up this book, but it could have been done a little bit more organically. And honestly, I’m a big fan of letting a story be a story.
While I found that I did have to suspend my belief a couple of times during the course of the novel, Efrain’s voice and his struggles were enough to pull me into the story.
Sofia Quintero on the web
Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter