Kaleidoscope by Cecily Wong

“I’ve found that loneliness has a way of feeling significant, no matter how frivolously the hours are spent.”

What could have been a poignant exploration of the complex bond between two sisters is ultimately undercut by an underwhelming cast of characters, an uninspired romance & an uneven storyline. While there were scenes within Kaleidoscope that struck me as witty & moving, the pacing and sort-of-but-not-quite non-linear timeline didn’t feel particularly compelling.

In the opening chapter, we witness one of the Brighton sisters’ most difficult experiences, and we are given a glimpse into their intense yet sometimes uneasy relationship. The following chapters switch to the younger sister’s pov, and sadly I am rarely a fan of books switching between 1st and 3rd povs. Anyway, a good chunk of the story is told directly by Riley Brighton, who is Chinese American, and has always felt in her sister’s shadow. Riley is a rather aimless loner who struggles to reconcile herself to life. Her beautiful older sister, Morgan, has always played a more active role in the family’s business, Kaleidoscope, a shopping empire started by her parents and a friend of theirs.

While we don’t learn too much about Kaleidoscope, other than how it started and the kind of merchandise it sells (a lot of goods imported from india) and the kind of demographic it appeals to, many aspects of this business remain unexplored, which is a pity as I wish the narrative could have incorporated more fully discussions on consumerism and cultural appropriation. Anyhow, we learn that Riley and Morgan’s bond was a bit codependent, and once they reach their college years, their relationship becomes somewhat fraught. Add to the mix James, who is Morgan’s new bf, and Riley’s sort-of-crush and things get complicated.
When tragedy strikes, Riley is left reeling. Her parents offer no comfort, and Riley is drowning in guilt. As her relationship with her parents’ sours, Riley decides on a ‘healing’ journey.

“At what point, she asks herself, is a person entitled to feel badly for themselves? Who gets to judge? What are the criteria for comparing heartbreak?”

A lot of the time the motivations of the characters escaped me, but not in a way that made them realistically idiosyncratic or compellingly ambiguous…I just found their actions random and to very much serve as convenient plot-devices to get us from A to B. Riley, our protagonist remains a mystery to me. She tries to articulate her difficulties in life, her feelings towards Morgan, James, her parents, and her own identity..but does so in a way that really succeeds in conveying her various states of mind, fears, and desires. That the narrative switches to a 3rd after ‘it’ happens, also distanced me somewhat from the events of the story. There is a large chunk of the book where nothing really happens, nor are we given much insight into the characters…and then around the halfway mark, possibly even after, we finally get that ‘trip’ that was mentioned in the book’s summary. I rather disliked it when book summaries mention something that happens waaaay late in the story, especially when they imply that this will be a major aspect of the storyline….and here it just wasn’t. I didn’t like the trip at all, as it struck me as and bordering on eat-pray-love vibes.
I also really didn’t like that Riley and James’s relationship takes precedence over Riley and Morgan’s bond. I just can’t help but compare this to two of my favourite novels that explore complex sister dynamics, Sunset and Yolk. There, the sisters are messy, sure, and we don’t always understand them, but the authors are able to portray them in such a vivid way as to make them utterly believable. Here Morgan is at best a very thinly rendered character…maybe if we had more flashbacks exploring the sisters’ relationship prior & after Kaleidoscope, Morgan & Riley’s relationship would have come across as more rounded…as things stand I struggled to take them seriously, and it was frustrating that Morgan’s character is sidelined in favour of this boring & dodgy guy. Maybe if Riley and his grief had been rendered in more depth, maybe then I could have been more willing to accept the idea that she & James found solace and comfort in each other…as things stand I didn’t like how their romance is framed as if it’s the real deal, and even if Morgan was perfect James could only love Riley because she’s just so ‘real’ and different. Ma fammi il piacere…
The ‘discovery’ they make on their trip seemed convenient as it gives their romance more legitimacy (that morgan had hidden stuff from them).
Now, one of my biggest complaints actually has to do with the parents. The mother is ridiculous, and nothing she did or said struck me as realistic (she’s even named karen). The father barely has a role so I can’t say anything about him. If the focus had remained on the family dynamics I would have probably been able to appreciate this more.
The non-linear timeline and the switching of perspectives didn’t really contribute much to the story, if anything they detracted from would have been an intimate and nuanced drama about sisterhood, grief, loneliness, and identity. Those chapters following the opening (which felt a bit random now that i think back to it as i don’t get the point of starting the story with that scene) were actually quite promising, and the 1st pov made Riley feel more real and sympathetic. But after the tragedy, not only are we distanced from the ‘action’ thanks to a switch to a more detached 3rd pov, but we get far too many melodramatic scenes involving Riley’s mum, her ‘journey’, and her romance with James. I can’t stress enough just how much I disliked the romance, which was cheesy & predictable.
I wish that Wong could have addressed certain issues & realities into more depth, as certain serious topics receive a somewhat rushed & superficial treatment.

All in all, I can’t say I liked this. Riley’s earlier moments of introspection did appeal to me but as the narrative progressed my interest waned. The sisters should have remained at the forefront of the story, and they don’t. Most of the characters are cartoonish. The pacing is all over the place. And the romance was yikes. This is a pity as the story did have the potential of presenting its readers with a complex interrogation of identity & grief as well as the messy dynamic between sisters.

If you are interested in reading this book I recommend you check out more positive reviews or ones expressing opposing/different takes from my one.

My rating: ★ ★ ½

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