Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Studying so much had its consequences. It caused me to wonder, for instance, if I might be a genius.

Bursting with wry humor and insight Joan Is Okay makes for a quick and quirky read about a woman who doesn’t want to change to fit in with society’s standards.

In spite of what the people around her may think, Joan is okay…isn’t she? On paper Joan has achieved the American Dream, hasn’t she? She’s in her thirties and works as an ICU doctor at a New York City hospital, a job she finds deeply full-filling. Joan’s hard work ethic has earned her respect at the hospital and she’s even due a pay rise. When Joan’s father dies, she flies to China to attend his funeral but, unlike her older brother who stays for a longer visit, she immediately returns back to New York. Her colleagues seem puzzled by her refusal to take time off. Her now widowed mother is staying for a while with Joan’s brother and his family. They keep insisting that Joan should be around more. Her brother, who leads a fairly extravagant lifestyle, nags her about moving away from New York and opening her own practice where he lives. But Joan doesn’t seem to care about money, not in the way her brother does. She also shows no interest in finding a partner or starting a family. She’s content dedicating herself to her work and doesn’t seem to understand why other people may find her choices so baffling. As the narrative progresses Joan begins to feel overwhelmed by others. Her workplace forces her to take her time off to ‘grieve’, one of her colleagues is resentful of her raise and paints himself as somehow having been wrong by the hospital, and her new neighbour keeps encroaching on her private space, inviting himself over and offloading her with things he no longer wants. Then, towards the latter half of the novel, Joan is further troubled by the news of a virus…(you guessed it…covid cameo).

Joan’s idiosyncratic narration is certainly amusing and engaging. She finds social interactions difficult and often takes what other people say too literally. Because she keeps to herself others see her as standoffish and weird. Her approach to her work and the way she process/understand/see the the world around her brought to mind Keiko from Convenience Store Woman and Molly from The Maid. As with those characters, it could be argued that the reason why people view Joan as ‘different’ is that she’s neuroatypical. Yet, no one alludes to this possibility, even if Joan consistently exhibits neurodivergent traits…I understand that women and racial minorities ‘slip’ under the radar when it comes to being diagnosed (and are often misdiagnosed) but given Joan’s profession and the country she lives in…I would have excepted someone to mention this or keep this in mind rather than make Joan feel like an ‘alien’ because she doesn’t react or express herself in a neurotypical way. Anyway, aside from that Wang certainly brings to life the character of Joan. Her interior monologue is characterized by a dry yet witty tone. Joan’s acts of introspection are punctuated by sillier asides having to do with sitcoms and social niceties. When coming across other people she does have the habit of listing their height and weight which rubbed me the wrong way. No one can just look at someone and know their exact height, let alone their weight. It also seemed like an added ‘quirk’ that is a bit stereotypical (of a character who is heavily implied to be neuroatypical and is into a medical/science related field).
We also gain insight into her everyday life working at the ICU. Her father’s death and her mother’s temporary move into Fang’s house makes her reflect on their experiences in America, the linguistic and cultural barriers they faced. Joan also considers how her experiences differ from her brother’s ones; unlike her, Fang was born in China and while their parents moved to America he was left in the care of some relatives. Does he resent Joan because of this? Is his fixation with wealth and status an attempt to prove himself?

Wang is able to articulate complex and often hard to pin down feelings and thoughts. I also appreciated that there were instances where the author was able to point to what state of mind Joan was in without being explicit about it. We can see that Joan is numb without her telling us. Her deflection and minimisation of her own grief were also very convincing and felt consistent with her character.
There are moments where Joan is interacting with her superior, her colleague, or her neighbour, that really convey how uncomfortable she is. Often nothing overtly ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ has been said but their tones or line of questioning feels invasive or somewhat condescending. Wang also captures the realities of working in a predominantly male workplace. I was reminded of Severance, Edge Case, Days of Distraction, which also explore the experiences of young(ish) Asian American women who have jobs in typically white & male spaces. Wang emphasizes how often (supposedly) ‘well-meaning’ liberals such as her neighbour succeed only in making one feel even more ‘other’. The realism of Joan’s everyday life and inner monologue are contrasted with moments and scenes that verge on the absurd. Some of the secondary characters (such as this random girl who introduces herself as a ‘post-millennial’) came across as cartoonish, and their presence in Joan’s story felt jarring almost.
As the narrative progresses my interest waned. There was a lot of repetition, and some of the situations Joan ends up in felt a bit…trying too hard to be quirky? Kind of a la Fleabag. The inclusion of covid also affected my reading experience. It just stresses me out reading about the pandemic given that we are still in it and no, I don’t care to ‘relive’ those first few months back in 2020. I would have liked fewer scenes with the neighbour or random characters and more page time spent on Joan and her mom, or Joan and her brother. Still, I did find her point of view insightful, particularly when she considers how growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants has shaped her and her sense of self. I did find it slightly implausible that she was unfamiliar with so many American things, given that she was born and lived her whole life there…but I guess if you are a truly introverted or asocial person you would have less exposure to popular culture. Still, I could definitely relate to feeling lost or a step behind as there are instances where my English friends and or colleagues say things or refer to things I just don’t ‘get’.

While reading this I was reminded of Mieko Kawakami’s All the Lovers in the Night. Both novels focus on women in their 30s who lead rather solitary lives. They do not seem interested in pursuing romantic relationships nor do they care about ‘moulding’ themselves into their respective society’s ideal of a woman (who is often a wife & mother). I appreciated that story-wise Joan is Okay doesn’t follow a conventional route, which would have ended with Joan ‘finding’ someone or ‘changing’ because of love. Still, I did find the finale kind of anticlimactic. And again, by then, covid had kind of stolen the scene so I’d lost interest somewhat. If you liked Wang’s Chemistry and you can cope with ‘covid books’ I would definitely recommend you check out Joan Is Okay.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼ stars

picture from the new york times.

The Four Humors by Mina Seckin

“THE FOUR HUMORS THAT PUMP THROUGH MY BODY DETERMINE my character, temperament, mood. Blood, phlegm, black bile, and choler. The excess or lack of these bodily fluids designates how a person should be.”

The Four Humors is a rather milquetoast addition to the young-alienated-women subgenre that has become all the vogue in the last few years. Like most books that belong to this category, The Four Humors is centred around a 20-something woman leading a rather directionless existence. Sibel is a 26-year-old Turkish American woman who is a bit morbid, somewhat disaffected, and prone to self-sabotage. Similarly to other protagonists of this subgenre such as My Year Of Rest and Relaxation (here we the mc’s believes that a prolonged ‘sleep’ will ‘cure’ her of her ‘malaise’), Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily R. Austin (here the mc is obsessed with death), and Nobody, Somebody, Anybody by Kelly McClorey (here the mc is in reverence of florence nightingale and prescribes herself an outlandish cure in order to pass her exams), the narrator and protagonist of The Four Humors has a quirky obsession: she looks to the four humors theory of ancient medicine to make sense of her recurring and persistent headaches as well as the ‘malaises’ affecting those around her. Like the other disconnected women populating these disaster-women books, Sibel is grieving the death of one of her parents and uses her new obsession as a coping mechanism. Her remoteness, inwardness, and navel-gazing are yet other traits exhibited by these self-destructive women.
The majority of the narrative takes place in Istanbul during the summer. Sibel, alongside her inoffensive ‘all-American’ boyfriend, has gone to Istanbul to, allegedly, visit her father’s grave. Here she stays with her doting grandmother whose declining health is a source of further apprehension for Sibel who finds herself seeking comfort in the idea of blood, bile, choler, and phlegm as being the cause for human beings’ physical and emotional troubles. Meanwhile, she’s unable and or unwilling to visit her father’s grave, but repeatedly claims that she has to her loved ones.
Time and again she will go on about the theory of four humors but rather than making her into an interesting character, her obsession with this ancient physiology resulted in a lot of repetition. Sibel’s narration was boring, and her constant asides on bile, phlegm etc., further bogged down her story. Her narration lacked the wry social commentary and dark sense of humor that make reads such as Luster, You Exist Too Much, and Pizza Girl into such engaging reads.

Nothing much happens. Sibel avoids going to her father’s grave, she lies about it, her boyfriend seems to grow weary of how closed-off she’s become, and we are later introduced to her cousin and sister, both of which are beautiful or possess something Sibel feels she lacks. Her sister is anorexic and this whole subplot irritated me profoundly as I disliked the way her ED is depicted and treated by other characters. The latter half of the novel then is more about old family ‘secrets’. A portion of the book is dedicated to Sibel’s grandmother’s story, but this is related by Sibel whose voice failed to catch my attention.

This novel brought to mind The Idiot, but if I were to compare the two The Four Humors would not come out on top. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Mina Seckin has, in fact, read The Idiot, and both the tone of her story and her mumblecore dialogues seemed a bit too reminiscent of Elif Batuman’s novel.
The Four Humors is not a memorable addition to the alienated young women literary trend. If you’ve read any of the books from this list, well, you won’t be particularly blown away from The Four Humors. While I could have probably forgiven this book for its lack of originality, the narrative had a humorless quality to it that was harder to look past.
Ultimately, the novel’s only strength, or most appealing aspect, lies in the grandmother/granddaughter relationship. There were the occasional passages that stood out to me but for the most part I found the author’s prose, and the content of her story, to be rather forgettable. The novel does have a strong sense of place and I liked the lazy dreamlike summer atmosphere permeating much of Sibel’s story. So, if you are looking for a read set in Turkey or one that tries to articulate complex things such as grief, numbness, and heartbreak, well, The Four Humors might be the right read for you.

my rating: ★★★☆☆