The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

The YA genre seems saturated by heroines who are (allegedly) neither beautiful nor intelligent but they are spunky and clumsy and bursting with goodness. Well, I have had my fill of these girls.

Wholesome, vanilla, inoffensive, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a relatively enjoyable YA read that tone-wise will definitely appeal to younger audiences (with very few alterations this could easily have been a middle-grade book). As usual, I was sold by the comparison, which in this case happens to be one of my all-time favorite films, Spirited Away. While The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea does present readers with some vivid descriptions of the Spirit Realm, the characters and world-building were not as nuanced as Miyazaki’s ones. Also, I couldn’t help but compare (unfavourably) this to other fairy-tale-esque YA books such as Daughter of the Forest and Six Crimson Cranes.
Anyway, the story is fairly plot-driven as we follow our ‘spunky’ heroine trying to put an end to the curse afflicting the Sea God, a god who once protected humans but for generations has been destroying her homeland by causing deadly storms. To appease him every year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea and becomes his bride. This year it will be someone from Mina’s village, the lovely Shim Cheong who happens to be the object of affection of Mina’s brother, Joon. Seeing how much they love each other Mina hijacks the ceremony and sacrifices herself instead. Once in the Spirit Realm, she discovers that the Sea God has been asleep for years and that only his ‘true bride’ can put an end to his curse. We don’t learn much about what happened to the previous brides, with the exception of one, and she doesn’t really get much page time. It would have been nice to know what these other brides got up to in the Spirit Realm but alas the plot is very much focused on Mina who is determined to save her people from future heartaches. She’s somewhat aided by the ‘mysterious’ Shin, and his two sidekicks, the funny one and the surly one. They do come into contact with other gods and spirits but these scenes are short-lived and rather rushed. Mina makes a few heedless choices because she just can’t bear not to do what’s right (le sigh), and she eventually develops feelings for someone.
Mina manages to make people help her left and right because her goodness is just that motivating. Eventually, we learn more about the Sea God and the identities of Mina’s newfound allies.
It would have been nice to have Mina think about her family more. She mostly thought of her grandmother when the plot needed it and it felt a bit unrealistic that she would so easily get over them. I was also tired of the narrative telling us that Mina was not beautiful or intelligent when it is quite obvious that she is the most special girl in the whole bloody book. The love interest was a bit bland and his sidekicks were rather cliched. The Sea God’s curse and the events that led to it were somewhat anticlimactic. The story tries to have Mina bring these gods and spirits to their senses by reminding them that there are humans who pray for them and need their help, but her arguments were so simplistic that it made it hard for me to believe that her words/actions would be so ‘touching’ to others. The ending could have easily been shorter as it came across as prolonged for no reason whatsoever. While there were certain elements that I liked and I did not find this to be an unpleasant story, well, it felt very mid. I guess I could see this book working for readers who enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow.
Sadly, I was rather disappointed by The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, as I was looking for richer storytelling, a more developed cast of characters and world-building, and a less predictable plot. Overall this was an easy if forgettable read and I’m not sure whether I would read more by this author.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost by David Hoon Kim

While I can recognise that Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost is far from a terrible novel, I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about it. Personally, I don’t think the world needed yet another novel about a modern-day (wannabe) flâneur (who happens to be, you guessed it, an intellectual cis straight man whose personality is akin to a slice of soggy toast) having a metaphysical existential crisis in Paris (where of course he falls for an elusive woman).

This is the kind of novel that cares little about the plot or characters. Instead, the narrative seems very much intent on being incohesive, presenting us with scenes and or reflections that blur the line between reality and dreams. While I usually quite like novels that manage to create and sustain a surrealist mood, here, from the very get-go, I found the narrative, its structure in particular, to be little other than artificial.
This novel seems to be desperately striving for this peculiar absurdist tone but, in the case of this reader at least, it just fell flat. Sacrificing style over substance also results in a cast of barely sketched out characters, figments really, that do not manage to hold one’s attention. The weakest aspect of the novel lies in Henrik, our main narrator and major character. His voice was très insipid, to the point that I would often have to make an effort to follow his train of thoughts. His seemingly interminable inner monologues were dull indeed. He often recounts the exchanges that he has with others so that I felt all the more distanced from the story’s events. The guy also behaved in a rather inconsistent way so that I sometimes had the impression that the story was being told by numerous narrators, instead of the one guy.

In the first section, we learn a little about Henrik, a Japanese adoptee to Danish parents. He’s completing some sort of thesis or dissertation on Samuel Beckett while living in Paris. He speaks three languages, Danish, English, and French and is an aspiring translator who wants to do English/French translations (not an easy endeavour given that neither language is technically his ‘mother tongue’, which is danish). He’s dating Fumiko, a Japanese woman who for reasons unknown to him (let alone us) has locked herself in her dorm room. We never meet Fumiko, as after days of confinement she commits suicide.
We then switch to a ‘you’ type of narrative where we are introduced to a group of young medical students who are dissecting (i think?) Fumiko’s body. What purpose did this part have? Go figure.
Then back to Henrik and his seemingly unending monologues. He tells us about the random people he sees on the street, and about trailing Asian women who remind him of Fumiko, of meeting and talking to other people (i cannot recall who they were or how they met, that’s how memorable these encounters/friendships were). I had no idea how much time was passing, days, weeks, years? There was no clear passage of time, so I was unsure how long ago Fumiko had committed suicide or how old our mc was. He gives us very little insight into his relationship with Fumiko and because of this lack of information I had a hard time 1) believing in Fumiko (especially since we never really see her ‘alive’ in the present and 2) believing in their dalliance.

Occasionally he does come up with interesting observations regarding Paris, the ‘intellectual’ circles Henrik moves in, and on his identity. Attention is paid in particular to the disconnect he feels between who he is (he feels very danish) and his appearance (which is not ‘typically’ danish). But these speculations (on identity & belonging, the divide between one’s inner and one’s outer self) were drowned out by Henrik’s other thoughts, which often made little sense or struck me as entirely too affected.

Then, all of a sudden, the last section of the narrative goes on about his relationship with his goddaughter. This seemed very out of the blue and has little to do with what had come beforehand. This goddaughter did not sound like a genuine child and her dad was way OTT (at one point he shits in a plastic bag…why? couldn’t he have asked to use his neighbours’ toilet if his own toilet was broken or whatnot?). Here there is a bit of pretending to be what you are not, as in this case, Henrik often acts like his goddaughter’s father.
Nothing truly interesting or new is said on the subject. The story then briefly moves from Paris to Rome and here Henrik seems all of a sudden to remember about Fumiko.

The novel tried very hard to impress its intelligence and artistry on us. I don’t mind erudite asides or creative ramblings but only if they either serve some sort of purpose (in relation to characters or plot) or if they serve as springboards for more interesting discussions/conversations. Here, it seemed they were just trying to create a certain atmosphere. The novel as a whole struck me as being very much influenced by the New Wave. And while it was in a way experimental and clearly postmodernist, it lacked bite, flavour. It was all flash, no substance. At least Beckett is amusing! Here the weirdness was studied, worst still, where was the humor?

Maybe a more engaging or intriguing narrator would have made me more inclined to pay attention to what was going on (then again, was anything really going on?) or what the author was writing about…but Henrik was painfully bland. His voice put me to sleep.

I recommend you check out more positive reviews before you decide whether to give this one a shot or not.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★½

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Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi

She wondered if the rest of early adulthood would be like this—avoiding roommates, getting ripped off for bad fusion food, and the peculiar loneliness of being smothered by people she didn’t want to spend time with.

Having recently fallen in love with Choi’s most recent novel, Yolk, I was eager to read more by her. As debut novels go Emergency Contact is certainly a pretty solid one. It boasts the same sharp humor that made Yolk such a winsome read (for me) and it similarly focuses on somewhat messy ‘older’ young adults (ie college-aged).

Penny Lee is a college freshman who would like to leave her unremarkable hometown and high school experience behind. Penny was raised by her mother whose parenting style could be described as very casual. Celeste often acted more like a friend than a mother and Penny has grown increasingly resentful of this, having had to worry about/look after her since a young age. Penny wants to be a writer but in her creative writing assignments struggles to get ‘close’ to her characters. Her roommate, who comes from wealth and is fairly outgoing, tries to be friends with Penny but our girl has a habit of pushing people away.
Sam works (and lives) at a café and he isn’t coping all that well. He had an intense relationship with his ex and he still not over her. His mom is an alcoholic, his estranged father is the quintessential deadbeat dad, and he had dropped out of college because he couldn’t afford it. Sam is broke and heartbroken.
As fate would have it Penny and Sam meet each other. They begin texting each other assiduously, getting to know each other, offering words of comfort or advice, being ‘there’ for the other. Most of the book focuses on their struggles, be it at college, with their mothers, or their exes. Despite the lack of ‘shared’ scenes the author convincingly develops their relationship. Their dynamic was so sweet and authentic. Their banter and flirting are a delight to read.
Penny and Sam are far from well behaved or perfect. They are petty, make assumptions about other people, they hurt the people they care about, they aren’t always able to forgive others or to consider other people’s perspectives…all these things made them all the more believable and I appreciated that the narrative, other characters, if not they themselves, call them out on their behaviour. The narrative also doesn’t depict certain characters as wholly mean or cartoonishly horrible which made me like the story all the more.
Choi captures the worries, fears, and anxieties that come when you leave home or set off to college.
Enjoyable, funny, and not without its touching moments Emergency Contact will definitely appeal to those who are looking for a more realistic and frank YA romance/coming-of-age. If you’ve already read this book I thoroughly recommend you check out Yolk.

my rating: ★★★¾

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Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.

Richly observed and heartbreakingly candid Crying in H Mart provides a powerful account of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. In her memoir musician Michelle Zauner writes with painful clarity of when at age 25 her mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Zauner’s recollection of her mother’s terminal illness, her rapidly deteriorating health, and eventual death is heart-wrenching. Zauner conveys with devastating precision the grief, confusion, and hurt she experienced in the wake of her mother’s diagnosis. Interspersed throughout her memories of her mother’s illness are glimpses into her childhood and teenage years. In looking back to her youth Zauner examines her strained relationship with her mother, her evolving relationship to her Korean American identity, and the crucial role that food, in particular Korean food, played in her upbringing and adulthood. Food becomes a tether to her mother and her Korean heritage (speaking of which, there is this wonderful video starring Zauner & Maangchi ).
Zauner’s immersive storytelling, which is brimming with piercing insights into love, loss, and language, is utterly captivating.

Despite the harrowing subject matter, I found myself unwilling to interrupt my reading. In navigating her grief and her shifting perception of her mother Zauner presents her readers with some truly beautiful reflections on motherhood and daughterhood. I admire Zauner for being able to write with such lucidity about her grief and her mother’s illness. Zauner’s introspections also are worthy of praise as she is unflinching in her critiquing of her past-self.
Zauner’s examination of her often uneasy relationship with her mother underscores each episodic chapter within her memoir. In her recollection of her mother Zauner stresses how easy it is to mistake less ‘conventional’ demonstrations of love and affection as ‘lesser’.
Reading Crying in H Mart made my heart ache. Frank yet lyrical this is the kind of memoir that will leave a mark on its readers.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

re-read: this was just as heart-wrenching this second time around. Yet, there is something about Zauner’s voice that I find so compelling that makes her memoir into an ultimately uplifting book. There were many instances where I was moved to tears: from reading of the tragic reality of helplessly witnessing your own mother’s deteriorating health, to those instances where food becomes a binding force. I loved the way Zauner wrote about the power of food, in particular those recipes that are part of our childhood or that remind us of our culture or of a specific person. I was reminded of the important role that food played in my family growing up, in particular during my stays with my grandparents. Even if I wasn’t familiar with the foods and ingredients populating Zauner’s story the vivid way in which she wrote about them—their aromas, their compatibility to each other, the places where you would find these—made it all too easy for me to visualise them. This memoir is a powerful ode to food and the bond between mothers & daughters, specifically Zauner’s immeasurably complex and fierce relationship with her mother.


my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½

Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi

“I thought a polished appearance and stellar behavior would be the passport to belonging. And when I inevitably failed at perfection, I could at least wilfully do everything in my power to be kicked out before anyone left me.”

tw: eating disorders

Bursting with sharp humor and insight Yolk is a bighearted and profoundly honest novel. Never have I ever felt so understood and seen by a book. I have become used to eating disorders, bulimia especially, either being made into punchlines or sensationalised (i am looking at you Milk Fed). So, understandably I have become weary of reading books with main characters who have an ED. And then, lo and behold, Yolk.

There is so much to love about this novel. First, our narrator, Jayne Baek. She’s a listless twenty-year-old Korean-American college student who lives in an illegal sublet in New York. She shares the apartment with Jeremy, a polyamorous white guy she sort of had a relationship with. Not only is Jeremy scrounging off Jayne—over the course of a few months he only paid his half of the rent once—but he also gets her to help him with his ‘projects’. Although Jayne hangs out with other people, she keeps others at length, partly out of fear of being rejected, partly because she doesn’t want people to inspect her life too closely. Out of the blue, her older sister June shows up. June has a high-paying finance job, lives by herself in a swanky apartment, and, unlike Jayne, seems to have her shit together. The two sisters are not on the best of terms and in spite of living in the same city they have not seen each other for two years. Although Jayne isn’t keen on making amends with her sister, her world is upended by the news that June has been diagnosed with uterine cancer. What follows is a heartfelt tale navigating the fraught relationship between Jayne and June.

Jayne’s voice is incredibly authentic. She could be petty, silly, and cold. She’s also deeply insecure. Jayne wants to desperately leave her childhood and teenage years in Texas behind and tries to do so by barely keeping in touch with her family. She’s never been able to fully transcend the linguistic, cultural, and generational divides between her and her parents, which has caused her to feel at a remove from them. When June barges into her life Jayne isn’t all that happy. On the one hand, she finds June dorky, embarrassing even. On the other, she’s ashamed—of lousy Jeremy, the crappy apartment she’s living in, her ‘lack’ of success, and her ED. Because of this, June and Jayne’s ‘reconciliation is not smooth. Rarely have I come across such a realistic portrayal of siblings. When it comes to sisters especially creators/authors usually are rather lazy in terms of their characterization: one of them is good the other one is bad, or one of them is beautiful and the other is a ‘plain jane’, or one of them is outgoing and the other one serious (you get the gists). Choi does not confine June and Jayne to such narrow roles. They are both struggling in their own ways, they are capable of getting under each other’s skin (in record amounts of time) as no other person can yet their shared upbringing, or history if you will, also means that they ‘get’ each other. The dynamic between them felt incredibly authentic. From their arguments, which vacillated between being playful and serious, to those quieter moments between them. Speaking of arguments, Choi writes some of the most realistic arguments that I have ever read. Usually, arguments in books/tv shows/films have this scripted quality to them (they either don’t seem very spontaneous or they seem to build up gradually reaching a crescendo that ends with the people involved going their separate ways or breaking up or whatnot). Here instead the fights between June and Jayne are far more true-to-life. Sometimes they can momentarily defuse the tension between them, or sometimes their arguing reignites after a moment of calm.
Choi excels at dialogues in general. I particularly loved the banter and flirting between June and Patrick.

While the narrative does focus a lot on the love/hate bond between June and Jayne, Yolk is very much about Jayne and her relationship with herself and her body. I really appreciated the way Choi handled Jayne’s ED. While readers know that she has an ED, we only know know towards the end of the novel. I thought this was both clever and extremely thoughtful on Choi’s part. Clever because it is indicative of Jayne’s self-denial. While Jayne knows that has an ED she doesn’t want to really think about what this means. I used to rationalize my ED by treating my bulimia as a necessary step towards ‘thinness’. I knew deep down that what I was doing was definitely not healthy, but I trained my brain into thinking that it was just another part of my daily routine. So, Jayne’s denial really resonated with me. I could also really relate to Jayne’s attitude towards perfection as I too have the bad habit of abandoning things if I don’t get good enough results.
The romance between Jayne and Patrick was this great combination of cute and realistic. Their chemistry was sweet, and I loved their moments together.
Jayne’s narration is full of cultural references which made her environment(s) all the more real. I did struggle with the fashion brands as I happen to be fashion-backwards.

Yolk is a real beauty of a novel. It was funny, moving, whip-smart, and brutally honest.
If you are looking for a more mature YA novel that explores sisterhood, mental health, love, heartbreak, and Korean-American identity, look no further (I just finished this and I already want to re-read it).

Confession time: I actually didn’t think that I would like this novel. A few years ago I tried reading Permanent Record but I wasn’t vibing with it and ended up DNFing it and writing a high-key mean review (which I have now deleted and feel really shitty about posting in the first place). Choi please accept my apologies. As Madonna once said: Je suis désolé, lo siento, ik ben droevig, sono spiacente, perdóname.

my rating: ★★★★★

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If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

Engaging and insightful If I Had Your Face is a solid debut novel from a promising writer.
If I Had Your Face follows four young women trying to navigate everyday life in contemporary Seoul. They live in the same building but to begin with are not exactly friends. We have Ara, a mute hair stylist who is infatuated with a member of a popular Kpop boy band, Kyuri, who has undergone numerous plastic surgeries and works at a ‘room salon’ where she entertains wealthy men, Miho, an artist who studied in NY and whose boyfriend comes from an influential family, and Wonna, who lives with her husband and is pregnant.
Part of me wishes that the novel could have been structured differently, so that instead of switching between these characters their stories could have been presented as a series of interlinked novellas. This would have probably prevented their voices from blurring together, which they sometimes did. Miho and Wonna’s chapters were a lot weaker in terms of ‘distinctive’ voice. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Cha’s breezy prose. It is very readable and vividly rendered the characters’
circumstances/environments.
I liked the balance Cha maintained between drama and realism. Cha’s commentary on South Korean society is both sharp and zingy. Through the Ara, Miho, Wonna, and Kyuri’s stories Cha shows the ways in which their choices, desires, sense of selves, are shaped by gender inequity, class, and oppressive beauty standards. Their parents are either dead or unable to help them financially so they rely on their income…beauty too is a currency and we see the advantages of being seen as beautiful entails.
Another aspect that I appreciated about this novel was that its characters are not paragons of virtue. They can be selfish, oblivious, not always willing to consider the weight of their actions or words, judgemental, flippant, and cruel. I did find myself far more interested in Ara and Kyuri than Miho and Wonna. This may be because the latter two had chapters that were heavy on ‘backstories’ (as opposed to focusing on the ‘now’). Miho’s personality seemed that of the artist (always with her head in the clouds, viewing the world through artistic lenses, too occupied by her art to remember to eat or take care of herself) while Wonna’s chapters did not seem to fit with the rest. Her chapters examine her marriage and her anxiety over her pregnancy (understandably since she had several miscarriages), which would have suited another kind of book. The other characters’ chapters did not have such narrow focus. Also, I just found myself growing fonder of Ara and Kyuri. Their storylines were gripping in a way that Miho and Wonna’s weren’t. The stakes were higher in Ara and Kyuri and their eventual friendship was rather sweet.
Cha’s If I Had Your Face is certainly a vibrant read. If you want to read more about modern South Korean society or of the trails and errors, ups and downs of life as a millennial you should definitely give If I Had Your Face a try.

ps: I have a bone to pick with whoever wrote the blurb for this novel. The blurb for the viking edition not only reveals too much but it is also kind of misleading (Ara’s obsession with a K-pop star “drives her to violent extremes”…? When? If this is referring to that one scene…that had very little to do with Ara’s crush on that K-pop star).


my rating: ★★★½

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My Education by Susan Choi

“Love bestows such a dangerous sense of entitlement.”

Sometimes books really deserve their average rating…and this is one of those cases. As I am writing this the majority of readers have given My Education three stars, and more reviewers have given it 2 stars than 5. I know that at the end of the day ‘ratings’ are insubstantial, not reliable gauges, yadda yadda but readers who are considering picking up My Education should bear its score in mind….it’s low for a reason.
I for one can’t say whether I disliked it or not. There were many elements I did not appreciate but I could also see what the novel was trying to do. For the most part, it was a rather funny novel and there were many passages and scenes that were almost endearingly offbeat.
Susan Cho’s satire—of academia, of ‘affairs’ between a younger & naive person and an older married one, and of all sorts of people—did occasionally hit the mark, and the narrator’s caustic commentary did amused me. But, and it’s a big but, Cho’s hyperbolic and bombastic language made for a dense and ultimately not very rewarding reading experience. She has a Joycean approach to syntax, with baffling backwards-sounding sentences that go on forever and are punctuated by highfalutin words that more often than not do not fit the context they are in. Also, I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this novel with two others I’ve read in 2020, Pizza Girl and Luster, both of which explore dynamics similar to the ones My Education . Whereas I found those books to be highly absorbing and I enjoyed their ‘effervescent’ prose, My Education is bogged down by its author’s circumlocutory and turgid style. At times it seemed that I had to find my way through a discombobulating and never-ending warren of florid sentences, with little success. I was perplexed by Cho’s writing, especially since it did ‘sound’ like the authentic ‘voice’ of her main character. Would Regina really make such ostentatious metaphors and penetrating if convoluted observations and assessments? At times her comments seemed to originate from a perspective outside of her own one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. While this is by no means a plot-driven narrative, it does have a storyline, however feeble, and it unfolds as follows: Regina, the type of protagonist who should have and could have remained unnamed, is a directionless graduate student who upon hearing about Professor Nicholas Brodeur’s ill repute decides to join his class and attract his attention. For reasons that are never truly disclosed to the readers Regina is attracted to Nicholas because of the allegations against him… her excitement at his sexual misconduct was certainly bewildering. Was she aroused by the idea of his illicit behaviour? Who knows! Her true feelings and motivations are lost in her pleonastic inner-monologue. Which, as I’ve mentioned above, just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of her persona. She’s naïve, childish, inward-looking (yet, her act of introspections added little to her characterisation), impulsive, and socially myopic. The author tries to emphasise her ‘youth’, and in the process she made her seem closer to a teenager than a twenty-one-year-old (time and again we are reminded of her ignorance, and lack of interest or understanding, of what being a mother entails…is she 12?). Anyway, Regina, for obscurely perverse reasons, ‘pursues’ Nicholas, who isn’t as alluring a man as she’d hoped. Cho, in fact, subverts the trope of the young ingénue student who begins an affair with an older charismatic professor as Regina’s liaison is not with Nicholas but his wife. She falls in love within a few pages, lusts after this wife, Martha, for reasons that aren’t that clear (which is the norm in this book). More perplexing still is that Martha reciprocates, to a certain degree at least, Regina’s infatuation. The sex between these two women is awfully over the top, and I don’t I’ve ever come across such bad sex scenes (this book was nominated, and should have won, for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award). Regina lusting for Martha makes for 40% of this novel. They either have petty squabbles or convoluted sex (“I would have liked a single rope to bind us together, with tightly stacked coils, so that we formed a sort of Siamese mummy”) . Readers will probably not root for them as they are unlikable or unsympathetic as each other. The male characters, however flawed and problematic, at least had discernible personalities and could even be quite amusing.

The narrative then takes us away from the 1990s and into the late 2000s where we witness how Regina’s life has come to look similar to Martha’s own one. I didn’t particularly like the message here: the three main women in this novel are all at one point or another mothers and wives. While the male characters had character arcs, Regina and Martha…I could not for the life of me understand what compelled them to act they way they did. Given that this novel popped up in ‘best campus/academia’ novels I was hoping that Regina’s studies would play more of a role in her story, but they don’t. Even when we see her as a ‘proper’ grown-up, her work and interests remain off page.
While I liked the idea of this novel, the execution was not my cup of tea. Cho’s lampooning style could be amusing, but then we would get things like: “It was deep winter now, the season when suicides rained down like apples from the limbs of the gorge-spanning bridges” or “something in her bearing, an extremely compressed capability, suggested to me that she might be a butcher, or a construction foreperson, as well as a lesbian”.
I just don’t know what to make of this book. It had the right ingredients for a funny yet cutting read but Cho’s overplays her already intentionally exaggerated style. Then we have two boring and undefined main characters, many failed attempts at subversiveness, and a repetitive and ultimately skin-deep story…and you kind of lost me. What pissed me off the most was a scene towards the end where Cho makes a character who was sexually abused have a cameo appearance where she discloses this to Regina for no real reason other than for some shock-value content. The tone in this scene was so off, it was almost gleeful…which, yikes. That’s fucked up.
When Regina tells us “Reader, I grew up”, I wanted to call out bullshit because Regina, darling, you did no such fucking thing. The ending really wants to paint her as being more mature and sensible, but it doesn’t work as we only glimpse these traits in the very last few pages. Why was Martha interested in Regina anyway? Why would anyone be in love with someone like Martha ? Search me!
Last, but not least, because of Cho’s extravagant and syntax-averse writing this 300-page novel read like a 600-page tome. Still, I did manage to finish it, and it was probably thanks to Nicholas, Dutra, and Laurence who kept me interested in the story. Also, to be fair, Cho’s commentary and her observations could be spot on…then again, more often than not, a good point would be lost in a sea of gaudy and seemingly never-ending asides.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

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Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier — book review

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“They could support a teenage pregnancy, but not this, not a person who drifted from one moment to the next without any idea about where she was headed.”

Sayaka Murata meets Ottessa Moshfegh in this freewheeling and darkly funny debut novel. Jean Kyoung Frazier’s deadpan wit and playful cynicism give a subversive edge to what could otherwise seem like yet another tale of millennial ennui.

Pizza Girl is uncompromising in its portrayal of love, obsession, addiction, and depression. Our narrator and protagonist is a Korean-American pizza delivery girl who lives in suburban Los Angeles. She’s eighteen years old, pregnant, and feels increasingly detached from her supportive mother and affable boyfriend. Unlike them, our narrator cannot reconcile herself with her pregnancy, and tries to avoid thinking about her future. As her alienation grows, she retreats further into herself and spends her waking hours in a perpetual state of numbing listlessness.

“Where am I going and how do I get there? What have I done and what will I continue to do? Will I ever wake up and look in the mirror and feel good about the person staring back at me?”

Her unfulfilling existence is interrupted by Jenny, a stay-at-home mother in her late thirties who orders pickled covered pizzas for her son. Our protagonist becomes enthralled by Jenny, perceiving her as both glamorous and deeply human. Pizza girl’s desire for Jenny is all-consuming, and soon our narrator, under the illusion that Jenny too feels their ‘connection’, is hurtling down a path of self-destruction. Her reckless and erratic behaviour will unsettle both the reader and her loved ones. Yet, even at her lowest Frazier’s narrator is never repelling. Her delusions, her anxieties, her world-weariness are rendered with clarity and empathy.

She feels simultaneously unseen and suffocated by the people in her life. While readers understand, to a certain extent, that her sluggish attitude and cruel words are borne out of painful frustration. Her unspoken misgivings (about who is she and what kind of future awaits her, about having a child and being a mother), her unease and guilt, her fear of resembling her now deceased alcoholic father, make her all the more desperate for a way out of her life. Unlike others Jenny seems unafraid to show her vulnerabilities, and there is a strange kinship between these two women.

“I’ll tell you what I wish someone told me when I was eighteen—it never goes away.”
“What is ‘it,’ exactly?”
“All of it, any of it, just it.”

While the world Frazier depicts seems at times incredibly pessimistic, the narrator’s unerring, wry, and compelling voice never succumbs to her bleak circumstances.
Frazier’s prose has this lively quality to it, one that makes Pizza Girl into an incredibly absorbing read. The feverish latter part of the story, in which others call into question our protagonist’s state of mind, brought to mind Caroline O’Donoghue’s novels (in particular Promising Young Women). Let it be said that things get confusing (and somewhat horrifying).

“Han was a sickness of the soul, an acceptance of having a life that would be filled with sorrow and resentment and knowing that deep down, despite this acceptance, despite cold and hard facts that proved life was long and full of undeserved miseries, “hope” was still a word that carried warmth and meaning. Despite themselves, Koreans were not believers, but feelers—they pictured the light at the end of the tunnel and fantasized about how lovely that first touch of sun would feel against their skin, about all they could do in wide-open spaces.”

Frazier’s mumblecore-esque dialogues demonstrate her attentive ear for language. Speaking of language, I particularly liked pizza girl’s assessment of ready replies like ‘I’m okay’ or ‘I’m fine’.

“Fine,” a word you used when you stubbed your toe and people asked you if you were okay and you didn’t want to sound like a little bitch. When your mom gave you Cheerios after you asked for Froot Loops. Something you said to people who asked about your day and you didn’t know them well enough to give them a real answer. Never a word used when talking about anything of value.”

Pizza girl’s disconnect—from others, reality, and herself—is vibrantly rendered. Her troubled relationship with her dysfunctional father hit particularly hard as I found her conflicting thoughts towards him (and the idea of resembling him) to echo my own experiences.

Similarly to Hilary Leichter and Hiromi Kawakami Frazier’s surrealism is rooted in everyday life. Funny, moving, and unapologetic, Pizza Girl is a great debut novel. The narrator’s fuck-ups will undoubtedly make you uncomfortable, but much of her harmful behaviour stems from self-loathing and it also points to other people’s hypocritical attitudes towards those who are deemed ‘troubled’.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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