Things I knew about Sonia Sotomayor before beginning My Beloved World, a memoir of her youth in the Bronx and formative years as she tirelessly pursued knowledge and opportunity:
1. She’s an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
2. She’s the first Hispanic woman appointed to the Supreme Court.
3. She seems nice and no-nonsense.
And . . . well, that was about it. So what prompted me to pick this one up? Meg’s review, for one, but something else — something intangible — called to me from the library shelf. I listened to this work on audio and, though Sotomayor does not narrate it herself (she is rather busy, after all), I became so engrossed in her tale. Riveted, in fact.
I’ve come to the decision that approaching a biography or memoir blind is actually a really great idea. The best idea. No preconceived notions or prejudices, you know? And nothing is dull, boring, uninteresting. Everything is fresh and new. If you know little about the person in question, nothing blocks you from really getting to know them. You just jump in.
So it was with My Beloved World, which chronicles Sotomayor’s childhood, teen and early adult years as she grows up in the Bronx, attends college and ultimately begins her law career. The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Sonia’s only escape in childhood is at the home of her abuelita — but not even her grandmother can save she and Junior, her younger brother, from the effects of their father’s alcoholism. Their beautiful mother, though loving and hardworking, remains emotionally distant . . . both before and after the death of her husband. When Papi eventually dies, the family must surge forward to build something new.
Woven throughout the narrative is the story of Sonia’s own illness, too — and her attempts to understand and live fruitfully in the face of it. Diagnosed at age 7 with type 1 diabetes, Sotomayor learns to give herself the crucial shots needed daily as a young child. One of the most moving passages in My Beloved World comes early on: when Sonia recounts how she learned to inject herself with insulin as a form of autonomy. Her mother is despondent at Sonia’s diagnosis; in the 1950s, when so little was understood about the disease, they took it to be a death sentence.
From a young age, Sotomayor feels called to the law — something rare in her working-class neighborhood. She grows up in the projects with aspirations of more . . . but no clear idea of how to get there. Through books and education, however, Sotomayor continues to widen her circles and is never afraid to reach out for guidance. Even after she is selected to attend Princeton University on full scholarship and, later, to Yale Law School, she remains down-to-earth, gracious and determined.
I think she’s awesome, basically.
It would be impossible to emerge from My Beloved World without wanting to grab a drink with this woman. She is powerful, assertive and incredibly wise, but also completely able to give credit where credit is due and comes across as genuinely humble. Though some readers may feel disappointed the book ends just as Sotomayor’s career as a judge is getting started, I saw this memoir as a way to pay homage to the many people who reached out their hands, hearts and minds to guide her on an incredibly impressive path — and really loved it for that.
Sotomayor’s deep, abiding love for her family is the lynchpin holding this book together. I loved the stories of going to her grandmother’s house for big dinners and dancing the night away with the adults in the living room, basking in the warmth and love of having so much family close together. As her father’s health deteriorates when she is still a young child, that pain was palpable to me, too. Though Sonia loves her mother deeply, of course, I respected the honest way in which she recounted some of the difficulties of her youth . . . and how they’ve carried over into adulthood.
Fans of memoirs and biographies will find much to enjoy in My Beloved World. It speaks to the experience of first-generation Americans as well as the ubiquitous American Dream, and I found it incredibly well-written, quick-paced and inspirational. Women, especially, will appreciate Sotomayor’s rise in a male-dominated world — and she makes the best of everything.
After reading her story, Sonia is no longer a face I see and simply pass over on the evening news; she feels like a friend. A very powerful, kick-rump friend.
4.5 out of 5!
About the audio: Academy Award-winning actress Rita Moreno does a fantastic job capturing the nuances of Sotomayor’s serious, sometimes-gritty but ultimately beautiful prose. Her Spanish and accent are impeccable, and if I didn’t know better? Well, I would assume she was Sotomayor herself. Loved her pacing, her cadence, everything.