Destiny Lozada is turning 15. It's time to plan for her quinceañera. Time to start preparing the special gown and heels and tiara, the live music, the fancy venue, and of course her escort (caballero) and court (seven girls called damas and seven boys called chambelanes) and the waltz they will perform.
Destiny's mom insists that Destiny have a proper quinceañera - a proper celebration of her "transition to womanhood" with her family and friends. Destiny's mom didn't have a proper quinceañera of her own because she grew up poor in Puerto Rico. Destiny's older sister America didn't have a quinceañera at all. America believes that a quinceañera "stands for virginity, chastity, and nonsense. It's a rehearsal for how to walk, talk, sit, eat, and obey. . . It's also used to show wealth." As for Destiny's dad, he's determined to stay out of the debate.
Destiny doesn't quite agree with her mom when she says that a quinceañera is a beautiful religious ceremony and a way for a New Yorker like Destiny to keep in touch with her Puerto Rican roots. She also doesn't quite agree with her sister when she says that a quinceañera is "just another tool used by The Man to imprison women in a lifelong sentence of loveless marriages filled with dirty dishes and ungrateful babies and dirty babies and ungrateful dishes!" Destiny doesn't know what to think. She doesn't know what she wants. But she's super close to her mom and sister and wants to please them both, so she ends up saying yes to all of their demands for her quinceañera, even though their demands contradict each other. For example: Destiny's mom thinks Destiny should have a caballero. America thinks Destiny should proudly stand alone at her birthday party.
Sweet 15 by Emily Adler and Alex Echevarria (Marshall Cavendish, 2010) is HILARIOUS. Destiny (the novel's narrator) and her family and friends all have a great sense of humor. And all of them - from Destiny's quirky and dorky best guy friend Omar to America's strong and beautiful best friends Hailey and Maritza - are colorful and likable characters. Destiny's mom and America are particularly wacky and have very funny exchanges about the quinceañera.
Sweet 15 is an entertaining story about a young woman discovering who she is and what she wants. It's sometimes packaged as a story about a young woman with a cultural identity crisis of sorts. Sometimes Destiny talks about feeling lost somewhere between the United States and Puerto Rico and "being pulled in different directions by my family with these two different cultures. . ." But these are all just explicit statements found in the book. Destiny doesn't spend time reflecting on this issue and there is no real evidence of this struggle in her life. Sweet 15 is really about Destiny finding her own voice instead of just pleasing her parents and living in her sister's shadow. It's about her figuring out what makes her happy and fighting for it instead of prioritizing what makes her parents, sister, or other people happy.
The novel does have a sour note: all the "aha moments." These are the moments where a quinceañera is explained through narration/exposition or dialogue. Below are examples from two different chapters in the book.
"Fact check: a quinceañera (which is Spanish for 'fifteen years') is like a Sweet Sixteen party or bat mitzvah, only the Spanish, or Mexican, or Puerto Rican, or Cuban, or Central or South American version for fifteen-year-old girls, with chunks of religious and cultural stuff mixed together."
"Omar wipes melted sugar off his chin and clears his throat: 'The quinceañera has two sections, a mass and a party. During the mass, fourteen candles are lit, and the mother places a tiara on her daughter's head. . .'"
These "aha moments" make for awkward reading and have a tendency to exoticize the quinceañera (which is definitely counterproductive to multicultural literature). It would have been better reading if that rich information had been shared through the characters' actions and through much more natural dialogue.
Still, I recommend Sweet 15 to readers looking for something light and fun and interesting, and, of course, to readers who may be curious about quinceañeras.
[My copy of Sweet 15 was provided by the publisher.]