Amá, Apá, and Julia are getting ready to go to Julia’s cousin Victor’s seventh birthday party—a party that Julia believes is just an excuse for Victor’s father, whom she calls Tío Bigotes, and the other men of the family to get together and get drunk. Julia asks if she can stay home and read, but Amá insists she come along.
Julia would rather escape into the world of books than deal with her boisterous, nosy family. She’s disdainful and contemptuous of them, and in spite of her parents’ attempts to get her to connect with her family, she only wants to retreat further into herself. Often novels portray such bookishness as purely virtuous, and this novel certainly sees value in it as well. But the novel also shows the way that such bookishness is an escape, and how that escape cuts of possibilities of connection.
Tío Bigotes’s house smells, and Julia is overwhelmed by the number of children running wildly in and out of the house. Amá forces Julia to greet and kiss every one of her relatives hello—even Tío Cayetano, who used to stick his finger in Julia’s mouth when no one was looking. The last time he did it, she was twelve, and she bit him—hard. After Julia gorges herself on some party food, one of her aunts, Tía Milagros—a mean gossip—congratulates her on being such a good eater. Julia thinks about how no one in the family used to tease Olga the way they tease her.
There are creepy men everywhere in Julia’s world—even within her own family. Surprisingly, though, Cayetano’s predatory nature rankles Julia less than her gossipy aunt does, showing just how used to and unfazed by unwanted male attention she is.
Julia watches her cousin Vanessa—who, at sixteen, is barely a year older than Julia herself—feed her infant child. Julia pities Vanessa, and looks away. She heads outside to greet some cousins, Freddy and Alicia—Freddy is the only member of the family who has gone to college, and his girlfriend Alicia works at a prestigious theater company in the city. Freddy and Alicia tell Julia about their travels around the world, and ask her what she’s thinking about doing for college—they offer to help her with anything she needs for her application.
Vanessa and Freddy represent two paths: the path of binding oneself to family, motherhood, and domesticity, and the path of academic and cultural education and independence. Julia wants what Freddy has—and is terrified of ending up like Vanessa. Nonetheless, it’s interesting that over the course of the books she never takes Freddy up on his offer. Her disconnection from other people—especially her family—seems to apply even to those who are purely and generously trying to help her.
Julia heads back inside, where she sits on the sofa and begins reading The Catcher in the Rye. Amá often yells at her for reading at parties, but Julia is able to read for a full half hour before being interrupted by Apá, Tío Bigotes, and Tio Cayetano, who reminisce about their lives in Mexico as they get drunk on tequila. The men call her over to harass her about her book, her quince, and her poor Spanish. Julia reels with shame, unsure of what to say, until Bigotes stands up and waddles to the bathroom where he begins audibly retching.
Julia wants to escape her overwhelming family—even a pleasant conversation with Freddy stresses her out. Even books, though, don’t allow her to escape for long in the face of her family’s antics. Also notable here is Julia’s choice of book. In Catcher, the protagonist Holden Caulfield sees himself as superior to others (everyone else is phony, to him), and ends up in a mental breakdown. The novel here is foreshadowing how Julia’s own judgmental isolation is pointing her down the same path.
That night, Julia has an upsetting dream in which she’s back in Mexico at Mamá Jacinta’s house—but the house is on fire, and when Julia jumps into a nearby river to escape, she sees a mermaid version of Olga who keeps swimming away from her.
Julia fears she’ll never catch up with the truth about Olga, and will remain in pursuit of her sister’s secrets all her life. Interestingly, the same dream also seems to imply that she senses the way that her connection to her past —her grandmother’s house in Mexico—is also becoming lost to her.