A Daring Debut Novel

Stephanie Jimenez's "They Could Have Named Her Anything" focuses on class, race and friendship at an elite UES school

Aug 21 2019 | 11:40 AM

Back-to-school for some means keeping up with more than one’s grades.

If you’re a low-income student going to a rich kid school, you end up competing not only for class rank, but who’s carrying the classier designer book bag. Add teen angst to the mix as well as racial tension, female friendship, plus familial expectations and you end up with "They Could Have Named Her Anything."

In the daring debut novel of Stephanie Jimenez, seventeen-year-old Maria Rosario attends a private Upper East Side high school with a wealthy and mostly white student body, where her name is pronounced in that lockjaw way one would enunciate it if her surname were “Shriver.” Back home in Queens among her family and boyfriend, Andres, she is the accented María a la "West Side Story."

Her split personality that allows her to move between both worlds cracks wide open when Maria is befriended by the well-off and rebellious Rachelle “Rocky” Albrecht, who gives her an up close and personal tour of how the other half lives. (“Who is Martha and where is her vineyard?”)

Maria is both exhilarated and demoralized by her new BFF’s Fifth Avenue, multi-bedroom apartment with a panoramic view of Central Park. Paling in comparison is her closet-free, two-family home off Queens Boulevard that boasts backyard cookouts and a clothesline.

Blue and White Collar Families

Long ago, I was almost a Maria, as one of my mother’s unrealized desires was to have me travel from the Bronx to Manhattan to attend private school.

Although I hate the idea that she had to endure a dashed dream, it was probably for the best. The last thing I would have needed, especially as an insecure adolescent, was to feel marginalized over material goods, where I came from, and who my family was, or more accurately, wasn’t.

I ended up at my borough’s equivalent of a posh all-girls preparatory school — in fact, its nickname was Snob Hill, because at its inception only wealthy Bronx and Westchester girls went there. By the time I enrolled, most parents’ collars skewed more blue than white. There were some families with deeper pockets than mine, but others who had less. The economic gaps were not that great and we all saw each other as basically the same; our uniform being the great equalizer.

In a time when mommy-lit, as well as IRL scandals, revolve around parents going to great, and sometimes scurrilous, lengths to get their students into “the best” schools, Jimenez takes us to the other side and shows us what happens to kids from financially struggling homes once they’ve arrived. As Maria’s experience is described: “What a struggle it would be to be who she was.”

Quite frankly though, who she “was” is a good girl, who’s also a bit of a hustler, looking for a better life than the modest one provided by her suddenly unemployed maintenance worker father and housekeeper mother. (Mrs. Rosario cleans in the UES buildings of Maria’s peers.)

Back in Queens, where she’s accused of trying to be “a white girl,” Maria is hardly tough, but she’s assumed to be by classmates because of her Latino last name and outer borough roots. So, she lets them think what they want and likes that they’re scared of her.

When Rocky first invites her out for overpriced restaurant lunches with the popular crowd, Maria resists proudly the generous scion’s offer to “spot” her, but eventually succumbs, not only to free meals, but a lavish trip to Las Vegas, sleepovers at Fifth Avenue, and shopping Rocky’s designer closet. So carried away does Maria get by the luster of her new circle, that some disturbing line-crossing takes place with the naïve belief that money will be part of the deal.

The book’s message is hardly to stay-in-your-own-lane or never acquaint yourself with those who are different, economically or otherwise. It’s more a cautionary tale about how unequal relationships can breed self-doubt and resentments, making it hard to remember the good things one’s own, perhaps smaller, life has to give.

Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels "Fat Chick" and "Back to Work She Goes."