Title: Signal to Noise
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Category: Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Literary, YA
In my little world of reading, I had forgotten how underrated a good coming-of-age story was and lately I find myself drawn to them more and more as I grow and change. Angsty me just really likes seeing fictional characters find themselves I guess and this book was no exception.
Signal to Noise takes place in Mexico City and is written in alternating chapters passing back and forth between the past and the present. At the beginning, it’s 2009, and our main character Meche has come back to Mexico City for her father’s funeral. We find out that she had left the city 15 years ago because of something that happened between her and her friends. She’s not happy to be back so she plans to settle her father’s affairs and leave.
Flashback to the past (1988), Meche and her two friends Sebastian (awesome name) and their friend Daniela are attending high school. Meche lives with a father who drinks to escape his unhappy marriage and a mother who is struggling make ends meet. Sebastian lives with an older brother who could care less what he does and an abusive father while Daniela lives in a relatively normal albeit conservative home. As in a lot of serious high school coming of age stories, they’re constantly bullied and sort of the outcasts of the school. They want what most outcast teens want: someone to notice them (preferably from the popular kids) and to catch the attention of their crushes (who just happen to be the popular kids). Well, luckily for them, they find out that Meche’s collection of vinyl records hold magical powers that inexplicably grant them wishes…
This book is such a rich story. It’s set during relatively contemporary times but it has the comforting and nostalgic quality of a fairy tale. From its interweaving of ’80’s music references to its love of Mexican folklore and Mexico City to its old-school moral proverbs, it has the perfect mesh of modern and vintage. I especially love the parts when Meche’s grandmother is telling her little fables and words of wisdom. It just added a touch of nostalgic magic that tied the story together. It also made the magical realism aspect seem more integrated and believable. The magical realism itself was pretty light and doesn’t appear until around a third of the way through the novel but it does play a big part of the story and I find that this aspect adds an air of urgency and possibility to the character’s desires even when Meche is wishing for something like a nice dress. I think the magic of granting their wishes just reminded me that although high school problems are temporary, when you’re living in it, they feel as significant as life and death.
“Why can’t music be magic? Aren’t spells just words you repeat? And what are songs? Lyrics that play over and over again. The words are like a formula.”
As an older reader, following these three friends through high school, some of their problems might seem trivial but it never feels that way. There’s a sense of desperation and hopefulness to them that you can’t help but want those wishes to be granted. Sebastian wants to buy new clothes but what the reader knows he wants is someone to tell him he’s worthy despite his poverty. Their friendship is instantly investing because despite being lonely and poor, they always find nuggets of hope in each other’s company and that’s what makes this book above all, a book about friendship. That despite the never ending hardships whether it be estranged parents or fights with other kids and that feeling of alienation and powerlessness Meche, Sebastian, and Daniela feel in their daily lives as many kids do during high school, the fact that they have someone who just gets them is often enough to weather what feels like an inescapable hell.
You don’t get to rewind your life like a tape and splice it back together, pretending it never knotted and tore, when it did and you know it did.
Garcia has such a knack for revealing just enough information about a person’s character that you get a sense of their character right away. The way that she layers these characters is amazing because it’s not something that’s obvious and it’s only after finishing the book and seeing these characters as a whole that I was able to fully appreciate who they were. I find that in a lot of coming-of-age stories featuring high school protagonists, they’re sort of the self-sacrificing types who will do good. Meche is not like that. Meche can be charming and pragmatic but also extremely bullheaded to a fault. As layered and sympathetic as Sebastian and Daniela are, Meche completely shines as a main character. She can hold a grudge and is brash and reckless like no other main character I’ve read this year. You can see how amusing it is to pair her personality with Sebastian who is kind of like Daniel from The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon. He’s more of the quiet, reflective type who loves books and the written word. Daniela serves as more of the sidekick in this trio but she’s a fun character nevertheless. She spends her time reading romance novels and daydreaming about being swept off her feet. The three of them together is just a good time and I could see the remnants of who Meche was follow her into her adult self.
It’s kind of weird that writing a review would make me a like a book more but it did for this one. It’s truly one of the best books I’ve read in 2016 and I didn’t even mention that I did tear up at one point. I also think it’s perfect for a winter read because you can read it in one or two sittings and just get immersed into a tender and touching coming-of-age story.