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Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood

San Antonio Current

“I remember her eyes, the gray of a sky about to let loose a storm. I remember the way she placed her finger on her bottom lip when she was lost in thoughts as dark as her eyes. I’d have given anything to live that close to her lips.”

This coming of age story starts with a kiss.

As soon as you read the first paragraph of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’ Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood, you know that this novel will break your heart, again and again. It’s only fair to warn you now, before you get to know the inhabitants of a Las Cruces, New Mexico barrio called Hollywood.
At 16, Sammy Santos should still be too young to have such a profound understanding of love and loss. Innocently, naïvely, he falls for Juliana Ríos, a tough girl with a collection of secrets and eyes of fire. She tells him to be careful, for he’s bound to get hurt. And he will. And he does. But he already knows about hurt, he wants to tells her, ever since the death of his mom forced him to take on the responsibilities of an adult while still in his teens. He holds a cleaning job before school, prepares dinner, and cares for his kid sister Elena; in many ways he’s more brother than son to his father, a kind, nurturing, hardworking man who’s every bit as aware and understanding as Sammy.
Set at the tail end of the ‘60s, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood trades the superficial nostalgia and false romanticism of other tales about that summer of love for the livid honesty of emotion. A close friend gets drafted. Another overdoses. Gigi, a spunky Chicana, runs for class president, and later organizes a protest against the school’s dress code. Mrs. Apodaca, Sammy’s neighbor, cares for her ailing husband and practices her own form of tough love, until she becomes the one in need.
“Things never end the way you expect them to,” Sammy says of his path in life. We make plans, our plans change, and we’re left to pick up the pieces. Throughout it all, Sammy struggles with letting go. At times he loses himself in the moment, observing but not interacting, while at other times he becomes swept up in events larger than himself, an active participant in an inevitable tidal wave of change.

Sammy & Juliana is about finding resolution to those difficult transitions in life: Your first love. Moving. Graduation. Heartbreak. Death. Sometimes their impact comes immediately, other times their full weight sets in days, months, years after the fact. Despite Sammy’s best efforts to resist, he’s well aware it’s in vain. “The living, they forget. But that’s what we do. I didn’t want to forget. Didn’t matter, though, what I wanted. Each day I forgot a little more.”

The way Sáenz writes, he captures perfectly the cadence, the nuance, of an adolescent Sammy telling the story of “the boy I was when I fell in love with a girl named Juliana,” right down to the way he remembers every stolen kiss, every shared moment. In natural, lucid prose, Sáenz captures Sammy’s half-formed thoughts, expressed in sentence fragments, and the confusion and uncertainty of an introspective, introverted boy on his path towards becoming a man. Sáenz’ has an ear for dialogue—not just the idiosyncratic phrases and expressions that characterize the residents of Hollywood, but also the way that Sammy narrates his tale, in a poetic, lyrical manner that begs to be read out loud and shared with others, placed in the hands of anyone who’s ever struggled with the confusion, loss, and contradictions that come with saying goodbye.

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