I recall seeing a very passionate recommendation for this book in the comments section of a Pajiba movie review, and I ordered a while back, without a lot of thought. And I mention this only because it means I had no idea what this book was about, or what I was getting into. All I knew, I insinuated from the beautiful cover — a young woman on a beach, her pronounced indifference seemingly daring the photographer — and everyone else — to try to capture even one small thing about her. Which turned out to be the perfect introduction to this memoir.
Wendy Ortiz looks back at her middle school and high school years, ages thirteen to eighteen, in unflinching and heartbreaking detail. In the first pages of the book, the reader meets Wendy’s new middle school English teacher, a somewhat young man himself, in his late twenties, who immediately takes a keen interest in Wendy and her writing. Her new teacher seems at first to be a positive force in the stultifying tedium of middle school life. He affirms her love of writing, her talent for it, and he encourages her to take risks and write something real. And this new momentum comes at a time when Wendy really could have used it most; the defiant girl on the cover is busy walling herself in from the world as she watches her parents descend into alcoholism and estrangement. And so in those first few pages, you may think you are reading the exposition of an inspiring story — a lost, rebellious teen; an energetic, dedicated teacher; a human connection; and an immense talent that would have remained unrevealed but for the care and concern of the one adult who finally took the time. You might think this story is heading somewhere nice. But the girl on the cover says differently. As it turns out, the immense talent part is true. The dedicated, concerned teacher part is, however … not.
There’s no question that Ortiz has put her heart and soul into recording and recalling these incredibly tumultuous years of her life. The events she describes are based faithfully on diary entries she made as a scrambling, naive young woman, but they are told with the wisdom and insight of the strong woman that later emerged. Which is to say that this is not only a bravely accurate retelling of very dark times, but it is also a very skilled retelling. I marveled at her insightful descriptions, remembering myself for few moments here and there what it felt like to be a 14 year old girl, and — far, far worse — a 14 year old girl who thinks she is in love. I remembered — deep down, in my bones. Which equals good writing.
Above all, this book reminds you that, for all the pearl-clutching that goes on in America over a Miley Cyrus video or some crappy book about S&M, often the truth right next door to you is so much stranger — and more disturbing — than any manufactured fiction. Overall, I think this memoir is a wonderful achievement and will be looking forward to seeing what Ortiz writes next.