Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

Despite the many moments of poignancy that appear throughout the course of Searching for Sylvie Lee, the novel is ultimately diminished by unnecessary melodrama and convoluted (yet predictable) soap-opera-ish twists.

At its heart Searching for Sylvie Lee is a family drama about long-held family secrets. The narrative switches between three points of view: a mother and her two daughters. On the surface, Sylvie Lee, the eldest daughter, is the more successful and accomplished of the two Lee daughters. She’s married to a wealthy man and has a solid career. Unlike her younger sister, Sylvie did not spend her first years with her parents and in fact, grew up in the Netherlands with her grandmother and some cousins of her mother. At age nine she finally joins her parents and younger sister in America. While Sylvie shows open affection towards Amy, not seeming to resent her for being the one who got to stay with their parents, she is unable and or unwilling to grow closer to either her mother or her father, in fact, her relationship with her father is fraught indeed. When news that her beloved grandmother is dying reaches her Sylvie rushes to the Netherlands. Weeks after Amy receives a worrying call from the son of her mother’s cousins (the people who Sylvie was raised by). Sylvie has vanished.
Overcome by anxiety Amy too flies to the Netherlands where she stays with her cousins. Here she picks up on the weird atmosphere that suggests that not everyone was as in awe of Sylvie as she was. Her mother’s cousin is hostile and contemptuous about anything concerning Sylvie and her husband is rather creepy. Their son, Sylvie’s best friend, is also being somewhat cagey.
As time goes by Amy’s image of Sylvie as this perfectly put-together adult begins to shatter as more of her secrets come to the light. Apparently, both her marriage and her work life were far from idyllic.

Sylvie’s chapters reveal her month in the Netherlands and give us insight into her childhood there. Her bond with her cousin and another man also play way too much of a role in the story. There is a quasi-love triangle that feels kind of icky and unconvincing. The reveals we get at the end were entirely too predictable and yet the way these are disclosed struck me as profoundly anticlimactic. There is also way too much time spent on Sylvie’s trip to Venice alongside these two men and a friend of theirs (Sylvie is not much a friend to her tbh given that she goes behind her back and shows little remorse about doing so). Here the author goes out of her way to describe the classic lightning trip to Venice, name-checking the various sites etc. Yet, here she also makes a big gaffe by writing in cursive what she must have thought was orange juice in Italian but it was in fact, French. This small detail irked me as to why then spend so much time showcasing how ‘knowledged’ you are about Venice? And then you just try to make the setting more ‘vivid’ by throwing unnecessary untranslated terms in italic? And getting them wrong? Orange juice is also not really a Venetian speciality. This is the North of Italy…not exactly orangeville. Anyway, this whole trip lacked tension and the argument(s) between the male characters felt very rehearsed. I also did not appreciate how the one gay character is portrayed (unhappily married and in love with his straight possibly homophobic friend who will never reciprocate his feelings and is willing to sabotage his friend’s relationship because of jealousy).
I would have liked less time spent on the shitty men orbiting Sylvie’s life and more time on her bond with Amy and her relationship with her mother. I also could have done without the over the top dodgy cousins. It would have been nice if Amy had been given more of her own personal arc. Nevertheless, the author does incorporate compelling themes within her narrative: she describes the experiences of immigrant families both in America and in the Netherlands, and how class plays into it, emphasizing the fallacy of the American dream. Another key aspect of the novel is how appearances can be deceptive and how one’s image of someone (for example Amy seeing her sister as perfect) can stop you from truly seeing that person.
All in all, this was a rather mixed bag. If there had been less melodrama and more moments of introspection I would have probably liked this one better. Still, I would probably read more by this author.

The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton

this is my fault. i should know by now that titles claiming to have dark academia or sapphic vibes should be approached with extreme caution.

DISCLAIMER: I did not like this book and my review reflects of that. I will be brutally honest about my thoughts on this novel so if you want to read this or if this book happens to be on your ‘radar’ I recommend you check out more positive reviews. If you loved this book, I am happy for you but please don’t tell me I’m wrong for disagreeing with you.


Affected and self-important The World Cannot Give makes for a singularly insipid read. Its biggest ‘sin’ is that it tries to be the dark academia equivalent of Not Like Other Girls. For all its attempts at being ‘not like’ other dark academia books, The World Cannot Give was one of the most generic books I’ve read in a very long time. From its poorly rendered setting to its wafer-thin characters, The World Cannot Give reads like a been-there-done-that boarding school novel. This is the kind of novel that thinks it is a lot smarter than it is (in reality it is as intellectually deep as a puddle, of the shallow variety). For all its attempts at intertextuality and self-awareness (we have few throwaway lines on the dangers of romanticizing elitist institutions and idealizing the past and historical figures), it has nothing substantial or new to say. The author’s writing style and the tone of her narrative brought to mind two novels that I am not fond of, The Silent Patient and An Anonymous Girl. If you liked them chances are you will have a more positive reading experience with The World Cannot Give than I was.
If you like cheesy shows such as Riverdale or self-dramatizing books such as Plain Bad Heroines ,Belladonna, A Lesson in Vengeance, Vicious Little Darlings, Good Girls Lie (where characters are prone to angsty theatricals) you may be able to actually enjoy The World Cannot Give.
As I warned above, this review is going to be harsh so if you aren’t keen on reading negative reviews you should really give this review a miss.

minor spoilers below

STORY/PLOT
Contrary to what the blurb says, The World Cannot Give is no ‘The Girls meets Fight Club’. Nor is it a satisfying ‘coming-of-age novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence. And the only ‘shocking’ thing about it is that it is shockingly bad. On the lines of, how was this even published?
The first page is misleadingly promising. I liked the opening line and that whole first paragraph. Alas, with each new page, my high hopes dwindled.
Laura is on her way to St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine. She’s ecstatic about attending this school because she hero-worships Sebastian Webster who used to go there in the 1930s. Angsty Webster wrote this book about the “sclerotic modern world” and the “shipwreck of the soul” and goes on and on about wanting to be “World-Historical”. Webster died at 19 fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Anyway, our sensitive Laura is enthralled by his writings and his fake-deep ideas so of course, she wants to study where he did. She gets to St. Dunstan goes to her room and meets two girls who from this scene onwards will not change. That is, this one scene establishes their one-note characters. There is Freddy who is a tertiary sort of character who just glares, snorts, scowls, and grimaces because that’s the kind of mean-ish one-dimensional sidekick she is. Then there is Bonnie who is all about her followers and using her boarding school as a prop for her dark academia inspired videos & photos. Laura eventually goes to the school’s chapel (Webster is buried there and there is a statue in his honour in that area) and she hears the choir. Her spirit is so moved by what she experiences at the chapel that she feels lifted to a higher plane of existence or something. But wait, the choir is rudely interrupted by a girl with a shaved head who is a queer feminist who is just like so done with the institution and wants to abolish mandatory church attendance. Laura, our innocent, is shooketh by her actions and somehow, despite her wishy-washy personality, ingratiates herself with the choir president, Virginia. We learn virtually nothing more about the school, nor do we get any real insight into how Laura’s classes are going, what she’s studying, her teachers, their methods…Laura joins the choir and what follows is a lot of scenes that are just filler leading up to the real ‘conflict’. The choir, this ‘clique’, did not make for interesting people, consequently, I was bored by the limited banter that didn’t reveal anything significant about them or their surroundings. Laura is Virginia’s lapdog, so she starts emulating whatever Virginia does (comparing herself to other literary sidekicks), Virginia spends her time ranting about the ‘sclerotic world’, her aversion towards matters of the flesh, and bemoaning the ye olden days and is mad that she has to be in the proximity of so many sinners. She also doesn’t want Brad, who is also in the choir, and Bonnie to be together. Brad is loyal to Virginia so he is conflicted. Bonnie is in love with Brad for reasons. And why the hell not at this point. The only ones in the choir who came across as devoted to Webster, his ‘insights’ into the ills of the modern world, were Laura and Virginia. But they just have the same conversations about this guy. They don’t expand on his views, they merely reiterate the term ‘World-Historical’ and his other catchphrases. Anyway, time goes by and eventually things come to head when Bonnie decides to encroach on Virginia’s territory (the chapel) as retaliation for her interfering in her love life (instead of taking issue with Brad…ugh). Isobel, the queer feminist, comes into play but her presence is very much kept off-page. Virginia becomes increasingly fanatical and decides to go all Old Testament God on the people who have betrayed her or revealed that they are not ‘virtuous’ (quelle surprise…).

TONE/WRITING
You see the cover, you read the blurb, you come across someone comparing this to Donna Tartt (comparing book such as this to the secret history should be made into a punishable offence…ahem, i’m jesting of course), you think, this is going to be DEEP and possibly even intellectual and emotionally stimulating. You are, of course, dead wrong. This book reads like a spoof. But not a fully committed one. It actually reminded me of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. There the narrative makes fun of the heroine for wanting to be in a Gothic novel and seeing the world through Gothic-tinted lenses and overdramatising everything. This is exactly it. Except, it also takes itself seriously…kind of? The writing and tone try to mirror the way Laura sees the world. She yearns for Webster and, like Virginia, finds the present-day intolerable. So the writing uses this exaggerated and self-dramatizing language reminiscent of historical novels. Some of these are actually decent. But then we get a lot of short sentences and exclamations marks. This kind of style can work. For instance, in Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia, which actually happens to be a far superior boarding-school book exploring queer desire. The language there is very high-flown but it worked because Strachey could write some truly beautiful and playful passages.
Here the writing verges on the ridiculous and more often than not it comes across as just plain bad. We had clumsy, inharmonious, and even cheesy sentences: “Barry Ng blushes at this. Virginia glares at him. Brad sighs a long and heavy sigh.”; “She looks from Brad to Bonnie and back again. Brad sighs a long and exhausted sigh.”; “Shame floods Laura’s face; she curdles it into fury.” (lol); ““One choir. One family.” Her smile twitches.” (twitching smiles? what is this? fanfic i wrote at 15?); “Her smile glints.” (ugh); “Virginia didn’t know. Virginia couldn’t have known. Virginia would never. Virginia always would. Of course, of course, Virginia would.”; “Isobel is wrong, Laura tells herself. Isobel has to be wrong. Isobel’s just jealous; Isobel has no sense of transcendence;”. And these are just a few examples…the writing & tone did nothing for me. Very few writers can make third person present tense work and Burton isn’t one of them I’m afraid…
I struggled to take it seriously and even if it was intentionally trying to be satirical, well, even then I would have found it ridiculous.

THEMES/ ‘IDEOLOGY’
Like I said above this book tries to be different from other boarding schools/dark academia books by referencing the rise in popularity that dark academia aesthetics & media have had in the last few years…but that doesn’t result automatically in a thought-provoking commentary on the dangers of romanticism elitist institutions such as universities and or private schools. One of the two only poc characters in the story has a few lines that highlight how institutions like St. Duncan are built on inequality and that we should be more critical about those Old White Men who likely committed Bad Things and should not be therefore uncritically revered. Yeah fair enough. But that’s it. Laura and Virginia spend the whole bloody book going on about the ‘sclerotic modern world’ and are contemptuous of anyone who isn’t in awe of Webster. They believe in God..sort of? For all their talk about sins and transcendence, I was not at all convinced that they even had a strong relationship to their faith. Virginia wants to be baptized, but her decision to do so is made sus because she’s portrayed as sort of unhinged so she truly isn’t ‘genuine’. Laura instead is more mellow about her faith so I don’t understand why she would Virginia’s fanatical rants to be of any appeal. You do you babe and all that but come on…Virginia wasn’t even a charismatic orator. Their ideology actually brought to mind the kids from The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Like those lil creeps, Virginia and Laura find the modern world to be disgusting. They particularly don’t get why people are obsessed with sex. They merely want to transcend their bodies and reach a higher, more enlightened plane of existence. I think the author was trying to do her own version of “Beauty is terror” but yikes. It just came across as stagy. Additionally, I found it annoying that characters who could have been on the aroace spectrum are actually just ‘repressed’.
Anyway, this book had nothing interesting to say about faith, romanticizing the past, or the dangers of idealizing the ones you care for.
The story towards the end takes a weird route in that it becomes all about how boys/men exploit women and betray their trusts by sharing explicit photos and videos of their gf or sex partners with their male friends and this plotline worsened the already existing disconnect between the tone and the content of the book.

CHARACTERS/RELATIONSHIPS
I understand that people are incongruent but these characters did not make bloody sense. They were extremely one-note and then for plot-reasons they would do something really random. Laura is boring and annoying. I can cope with characters who are obsessed with a friend or who are introverted or even naive. But Laura was just embarrassing. Her devotion to Virginia lacked substance. Their dynamic was uneventful. Bonnie was depicted in a purposely grating way and grated my nerves. Isobel was gay and a feminist and stands against the bullshit Virginia and Laura believe in. That’s it. The boys are either milquetoast assholes who don’t see the problem in sharing nudes or doing whatever Virginia says because why not. There is this one guy in the choir who exists just to say ‘that’s cringe’ or ‘that’s completely cringe’.
Virginia was the worst offender. She had no redeeming qualities but we were meant to feel some degree of sympathy towards her. Come on. She wasn’t a convincing or compelling character. I didn’t find her an intriguing or cryptic mystery. She was nasty and I didn’t like that everything she does or says is basically chalked up to her being a total religious zealot. All of her reactions are so extreme as to make her into a caricature more than a person. I didn’t like the way her eating disorder was portrayed as it
The obsession and desire promised by the blurb were just not really there. I mean, yeah, the girl was obsessed but there was something perfunctory about it. The sapphic yearning I was hoping to find in these pages was largely absent. There is a f/f couple, but they had barely any scenes and they had 0 chemistry whatsoever. They came across as friends or sisters even. Then we are meant to believe that someone like Isobel would fall for Virginia because they shared a past? Surely Isobel, who is supposedly clever, would be a bit sus about Virginia’s sudden change of heart. Also, shouldn’t Virginia’s decline in her physical and mental health be a red flag of sorts? Shouldn’t Isobel have shown more concern over Virginia’s state of mind?

SETTING
0 sense of place. There are barely any descriptions of the school and very few passages detailing the nearby landscapes. The novel takes place nowadays I guess but there were barely any contemporary references. This could have worked if then we didn’t have a plotline involving Bonnie’s online following, sexting, or even certain terms (such as cringe) being used. It just took me out of the story as the majority of the narrative and dialogues were trying to conjure an ‘old’ timeless vibe. I think if the novel had had a historical setting it would have actually worked in its favour. Its modern social commentary after all is very half-arsed and had a vague tokenistic vibe to it (isobel existing just to oppose the establishment etc.).

I’m going to recommend a few books that in my opinion do what this book tries to do a lot better: Frost in May (coming of age, all-girl school, Catholicism), Abigail (coming of age, WWII Hungary, all-girl school, fraught friendships), Old School (all-boys schools, jealousy, ambition, privilege, self-knowledge), Sweet Days of Discipline (queer desire, obsession, order vs. chaos, all-girl school), The Inseparables (all-girl school, obsession, queer desire, Catholicism),These Violent Delights (college, obsession, toxic relationships, queer desire), Olivia (all-girl school, France 1890s, unrequited love, queer desire), A Great and Terrible Beauty (fantasy, fraught friendships, all-girl schools, f/f side), Passing (jealousy, race, queer repressed desire), Ninth House (dark academia, Yale, urban fantasy, tackles privilege, corruption, misogyny), The Wicker King (dark academia vibes, queer desire, obsession, toxic relationships).

Maybe if this novel had gone truly committed to being a parody, and upped the camp factor, maybe then I would have found it a little bit amusing. But it didn’t so nope, this novel did not work for me at all. The story was stupid, the characters were either bland or neurotic (in a really exaggerated, possibly problematic, way), the themes were poorly developed and relied on the usage of a few certain key terms (without delving into what this term truly means), the sapphic element was largely absent…you get the gist by now. I actually wish I’d dnfed but I hoped that it would improve along the way. When will I learn the lesson? A beautiful cover doth not make for a good book.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Having recently enjoyed reading Kevin Kwan’s A Room With A View re-telling, I was seriously expecting to love Crazy Rich Asians. I went into it hoping for a light-hearted and fun read but was instead met with a snooze-inducing story, a horrid cast of poorly developed characters, and an abundance of crass humor. I grew to hate all of the characters as well as the so-called plot and the tacky dialogues. Whereas I found Sex & Vanity to be a funny comedy of manners, Crazy Rich Asians struck me as garish and grating.
Rachel Chu, our supposed heroine, joins her boyfriend Nicholas Young as he travels to Singapore to be the best man at his best friend’s wedding. Nicholas has not informed Rachel of his family, who happen to be ‘crazy rich’. Because of this Rachel isn’t prepared to contend with his relatives’ opulent lifestyles nor is she expecting to encounter such cut-throat people, whose weapon of choice is malicious gossip. Although Rachel was raised in America her mother is from mainland China. Both of these things make her ‘undesirable’ to the older people in Nicholas’ family. His mother and grandmother in particular are set against her, so much so that they are willing to sabotage their relationship by any means necessary.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the story as much if it had focused on the conflict between Rachel and Nicholas’ mother. But, alas, hundreds of pages are dedicated to Nicholas’ horrid relations: there is Astrid, a spoiled yet self-pitying woman who will spend hundred of thousands on jewellery only to then bemoan how extravagant young people are. Her husband has a huge chip on his shoulder because he feels that her family treats him like a servant. She eventually comes across her first love who materializes from nowhere only to play the role of self-sacrificing cupid and gives Astrid some ‘advice’ on how to salvage her marriage, because he ‘knows’ men. There is Eddie, who is even more spoiled and obnoxious than Astrid. The narrative goes out of its way to paint him as a vulgar idiot who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There are plenty of additional characters who seem to share the same personality: they are mean, wasteful, vain, stupid, back-stabbing…the list goes on. I don’t have a problem with unlikeable characters. Some of my favourite novels, such as Madame Bovary or White Ivy, focus on less-than-likeable characters. However, the ones in Crazy Rich Asians are so painfully one-dimensional as to be utterly ridiculous. This slapdash satire is lazy and worst of all, painfully unfunny. All the husbands were dicks in the same way: they are cowards, weak, and possible cheaters. The women were divided into four categories: Rachel, who is Not Like Other Women, in that she uses her brain, she’s intelligent, she has a job, she (allegedly) doesn’t know or care about fashion or money; the ‘not so bad’ rich women such as Astrid and Rachel’s friend whose characters nevertheless revolve around what they wear or the fact that they like to spend money; the nasty set, which includes almost all of the women invited to the wedding, and these ones, well, they are Mean Girls who bully Rachel because they are jealous, and for all their love of fashion they do not possess Rachel’s innate simple yet elegant fashion sense; and the older women, which includes Nicholas’ mother, his aunts, and his grandmother who are also horrible and scheming (but are meant to be more ‘classy’ than the Mean Girls).

The plot goes in a circle forever. We see no meaningful interactions between Nicholas and his family, in fact, he gets less page time than most characters. He is Not Like Other Men in that he doesn’t care about money or status. Puh-lease. I found his denial of his wealth truly off-putting. I get that he was (somehow) the only one to be raised to be modest about the family fortune but the man has lived abroad and on his own, surely he must have gained some sort of perspective when it comes to his family’s wealth. But no! Time and again he denies that his family is rich, and I hated that. It made me want to reach into the page and slap him. This fake modesty is not pretty. I feel a similar type of rage when I think of those celebrities making videos where they say things along the lines ‘we are all in this pandemic together’. Bleargh. Fuck off, really. And Rachel, what a disappointing character. She was bland, painfully so. She never stands up to anyone, which, fair enough, given that maybe she doesn’t want to be disrespectful or aggravate certain situations but I found her passivity infuriating in the long run. Especially when it came to those Mean Girls. She also lacked ‘history’. It seemed that before her name appeared on the page she did not exist. With the exception of that one friend and her bf she has formed no other meaningful relationship…which is saying something given that she’s not a child.
Characters keep saying offensive things and no one really challenges their comments or views. If anything, the story goes to prove them ‘right’. Take the whole Kitty thing for example. At one point one of the female characters says that shopping can solve any problem a woman is having and I wanted to gouge my eyes out. The amount of girl-hate also drove me up the walls. I hate when male authors do this. It is as if they are compelled to write women as ‘catty’ and ‘competitive’ (whereas their male characters aren’t).
The book consists of characters gossiping, bicker, and bitching about one another. He said that she said that they said…etc. The one gay-coded character is portrayed as a snake (kwan, wtf? what is this, downton abbey?). The book exalts the characters’ extravagant lifestyles without anything meaningful to say about it. In fact, it just glorifies the ways of rich people. The constant name-dropping of fashion brands threatened to turn my brain to slush.
Anyway, this book has no redeeming qualities (for me of course). Rachel and Nicholas’ relationship felt like an afterthought almost. I never believed that they cared for each other and I think that Rachel should have not forgiven a man who lied by omission (about his past, his family, etc.). The last act was pure soap-opera. To use a possibly problematic term, that ‘twist’ was demented. Seriously so. That we don’t get any real scenes between Nicholas and his mother or even Rachel and his mother made their whole conflict bathetic.
This was meant to be an entertaining and escapist read but I was certainly not diverted. Maybe if you like shows like Gossip Girl you will find this more rewarding than I did. I, for one, do not care for this mindless glorification of the rich. Their ‘antics’, such as xenophobic, classist, and sexist comments as well as their ostentatious tastes and their constant need to travel by jet (who cares about the global carbon emissions!), are played up for laughs. This kind of mindless and gaudy satire achieves nothing. Bah. Maybe the film is more tolerable but this book is the definition of banal.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Honor by Thrity Umrigar

Previously to reading Thrity Umrigar’s Honor I’d read another novel with the same title and subject matter. Both books make for harrowing reads, however, whereas I found Elif Shafak’s more thoughtful tone to be more appropriate to the subject fitting, here, well, Umrigar’s undermines her social commentary by throwing into the mix a rushed romantic subplot, a series of blatant plot points and coincidences, an abundance of mawkish metaphors, and one too many cartoonish side characters.

At first, I found Umrigar’s Honor to be a rather gripping read as it promised to be an unflinching story tackling honor killings, Islamophobia, discrimination, and misogyny. The novel switches between two perspectives: Smita, an Indian American journalist who left India at a young age after a traumatic experience, and Meena, a Hindu woman who married a Muslim man. Meena has survived an attack that her husband did not. Her brothers, alongside other men from their community, tried to burn her alive. Now Meena and her newborn live with her mother-in-law who is resentful of her, blaming her for her son’s horrific death. Smita is given this story after her colleague is hospitalized. Initially, Smita isn’t too keen on this as she’s very uneasy about returning to India. A friend of her colleague becomes her travel companion. While she’s initially reluctant about his presence she quickly discovers that travelling alone is inadvisable.
Smita interviews Meena and learns the details of her vicious attack. She later on also interviews her brothers and a powerful man in their Hindu community. While they deny their involvement it is clear that they were not only responsible but have no remorse about having murdered their sister’s husband and disfigured her. Smita’s feelings towards India are repeatedly challenged by her companion who forces her not to dismiss a whole country on the basis of the actions of some. As Smita witnesses how Meena is treated by her mother-in-law and learns of how she was treated by her brothers, she becomes aware of her the privilege she carries being Indian American. Still, as a woman, she’s also exposed to the misogyny that is rampant in Meena’s community. Umrigar doesn’t paint Smita as a hero and I appreciated that sometimes, even when she’s trying to help someone, her actions do not have the desired consequences. In this way, I was reminded of The Far Field, another novel that is very much about privilege and guilt.
I did find Meena’s chapters to be a bit…condescending of her? Her vocabulary also struck me as inconsistent. Her chapters are in English for our eyes only, in reality, she’s speaking a dialect of Marathi, right? So why do her chapters occasionally seem to play up that she’s not well-spoken? Only for then to use complex sentences or allegories that really stood out in comparison to the rest of her narration? I don’t know…it seemed to me that the author was going to great lengths to portray Meena as this ‘simple’ village girl and it kind of annoyed me.
Smita also had her fair share of incongruities. For one, she claims to be good at her job yet she behaves really unprofessional. She tells off her companion, Mohan, for getting ‘emotional’ during one interview but she repeatedly does the same thing. She makes some really poor decisions and her line of questioning struck me ineffective.
For the majority of the narrative, the author does demonstrate her knowledge and insight into her story’s various subject matters (honor killings, religious conflicts, cultural and class divides). However, I did find her execution soap-operasish. At times her language, as well as her imagery, struck me as hackneyed, for example, “Smita could see the awful, irregular geometry of Meena’s face as past and present, normalcy and deformity, beauty and monstrosity, collided.” I also found it a bit predictable that Smita’s ‘past’, which has made her feel so conflicted about India, echoes in some ways Meena’s situation.
The pacing is fairly slow and I did not entirely understand why Meena’s chapters were even included given that, if anything, they made her relationship with her husband seem very rushed and random. The guy basically sees her once or twice while they are working and declares his undying love for her. His naivete about the fact that she’s Hindu and he is Muslim also struck me as a bit…unconvincing. I mean, he isn’t a child nor a hermit who is wholly unaware of his country’s political or social climate.
While the hearing’s result did strike me as sadly believable, I did find that section of the narrative somewhat rushed and illogical. Smita’s decision not to do something seemed a clear choice on the author’s part to force her character to feel guilty and haunted, indebted to stay in India. Smita’s relationship with Mohan also rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed a bit insensitive to have it so soon after yet another horrific plot point. The whole finale was corny, extremely so, and I hated how illogical it all was. Even if you have the character point out how ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ they are by believing that they have just been given a ‘sign’ from above, it still doesn’t make it believable to have that character uphold their lives because of that random sign. The secondary characters were very one-note, the majority of them are horrible, ignorant, or a combination of the two things. Most of the Indian female characters, with the exception of Meena, are really nasty to Smita for no good reason. I didn’t understand the point of her American colleague, Shannon, either. Her translator, Nandini, also served no purpose other than having scenes where Smita thinks her devotion to Shannon is’ weird’, and in a very childish manner wonders whether she’s in love with her. Grow up Smita, ffs.
Sadly, while I appreciate that the author has tackled such important issues, I found her storytelling to be too…shall I say, ‘book-clubby’ for my taste. I did like that at the end she makes a point of stating how absurd it is that ‘honor’ killings are referred to as such when there is truly nothing honorable about them.

my rating: ★★½

Love and Other Natural Disasters by Misa Sugiura

For the love of Jupiter, Nozomi was such a detestable main character.

It had been a while since I so wholeheartedly hated and rooted against the main character of a novel…but here we go. Love and Other Natural Disasters is the kind of romance YA novel that pretends to critique and be self-aware of the tropes that populate this genre but in actuality offers the same recycled ideas and an avalanche of cliches (we have one character saying something along the lines of “you are in love with the idea of love”…come on).
A quick rundown of the story: Nozomi is our narrator, who supposedly is in her late teens (17?18?) and is sad because her parents have split up and her mother is now with a former teacher of hers (boo-hoo). She and her brother go off to visit their uncle in San Francisco where thanks to his connections—ahem nepotism— she gets an internship working at a museum (do we learn anything about this internship? not really). Her grandmother is homophobic and has only recently ‘rekindled’ her relationship with her son (nozomi’s uncle). Nozomi is gay and understandably she is unhappy about having to keep her sexuality a secret in order to have a ‘good’ relationship with her grandmother. Alas, the plot is less concerned with Nozomi & her family than her love life. Before setting off to San Francisco Nozomi overheard a girl she was crushing on making fun of her and comparing her to grey wallpaper or something along those lines. Nozomi wants a GF real bad, and she falls in insta-love with Willow, who turns out, also works at the museum. Willow is beautiful, well-off, and wears makeup (that’s it. that’s her character). She’s also reeling because her girlfriend just broke up with her and seems now to be already dating someone else. Willow and Nozomi decide to do the fake-dating thing, Willow because she hopes to make her ex so jealous she will want to get back together, and Nozomi because she has watched a lot of rom-com movies and according to those the fake-dating couple always ends up falling in not-so-fake-love. Willow’s ex is maybe dating this girl who, you guessed it, is also at the museum as she is working on an installation for a show or something. This girl and Nozomi do not get along at all. At first, the girl is an asshole to her but then it becomes apparent that Nozomi is actually the brat. And that’s my biggest problem with this novel. Nozomi is a real stronza. The kind of nice person who often talks and thinks about how nice, kind, and selfless she is. She’s also low-key into virtue-signalling (telling off this girl for dismissing someone’s ‘i wish world hunger was no more’ wish, claiming that you never know who could be inspired by those words, maybe a person will come across it and decide to volunteer at the food bank…which, if you are wondering, nozomi does not do). Nozomi has also no growth. Her self-pitying ‘I’m a nice person really and any mistakes I do, I do in trying to be good and kind to others so can you blame me, really? ’ shtick got on my fucking nerves. The story tries to spin it so her only ‘flaw’ is that of being too much of a romantic and of trying to orchestrate a romance with Willow (her whole attitude towards willow is creepy af) . The last few pages make it seem as if being called out on her shit has made her mature in no time but I do not believe it for a second. Even after that ‘showdown’ scene, Nozomi seems still firm in her belief that because she didn’t mean to hurt anyone and that after all someone was mean to her so isn’t understandable that she tried to recreate the kind of romance you see in the movies? She has to be told to give someone space and that even if she apologizes that person can refuse to accept said apology. What is she, 14? And don’t get me started on how awful and pathetic she is when it comes to her mother. At one point puts the phone down on her mom because she can’t stand her ‘self-pitying’….pot kettle much? Her behaviour towards her parents was so childish, from the way she assigns them into good/bad roles to how she demands to be in the know-how of their private affairs. I mean, how is this girl meant to be 17/8? She acts like a child! Worse than a child. And she uses the words monstrous all the time. Her grandmother is a monstrous homophobe. She never seems willing to understand that her grandmother, who is Japanese, elderly, and religious, grew up with different social norms. At the end, Nozomi seems to resign herself to her grandmother being the way she is because she’s showing early signs of dementia. And as Nozomi loves to believe she’s a nice person this (her ‘accepting’ her grandmother’s homophobia) works with that narrative.

The characters were one-dimensional, they lacked substance, history even. Nozomi never talks about her high school or mentions any friends/hobbies. It seems to me that she came to be in that very first page of the novel, and that her life before that was…blank. The story was too focused on the drama between these four girls and I would have much preferred for the narrative to be more of a coming of age than a typical YA love story. There were lots of needlessly cringy scenes in which Nozomi does something incredibly stupid (out of the kindness of her heart) that I could have done without.
All in all, this novel irritated me. I kept reading hoping that Nozomi would grow but no. Her character arc is nonexistent even if the last pages will have you believe that she has become a better person and deserves to be forgiven for playing cupid. Her mistreatment of her parents, her obliviousness to her own rather privileged lifestyle (she’s not as wealthy as willow but come on, also, that internship? she cares nothing for it!), and her binary way of thinking (in which people are either bad or good)…all those remain unaddressed. Nozomi is a ‘nice’ person who’s been fooled by those damn romance movies and someone she liked made fun of her so of course, she gets a—frankly undeserved—happy ending.
The author’s writing was decent enough. It didn’t amuse me nor did it engage me particularly but it’s very much run-of-the-mill YA writing. Her dialogues were awkward, her portrayal of teenagers left a lot to be desired, and her mc was bloody awful.
If you liked this, good for you, I guess? If you have this on your tbr list don’t let my review deter you so you should maybe check out some positive reviews instead.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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I’ll Be Right There by Shin Kyung-sook

“Is this life? Is this why the relentless passing of time is both regretful and fortunate?”

I feel rather conflicted about I’ll Be Right There. The first two chapters certainly held my attention and some of the discussions that occur later in the narrative were thought-provoking, but, alas, many of the dialogues came across as stilted, there are many instances where the story verges on being straight-up misery-porn, and yet we also get a good ol’ dose of melodrama and some rather sappy moments.
After receiving a phone call from her ex-boyfriend our narrator, Jung Yoon, reminiscences about her early twenties. Her time at university in the 1980s was punctuated by anti-government student demonstrations. Yoon is still mourning the death of her mother and feels slightly removed from her everyday life. She becomes close to two other students, Myungsuh and Miru. The three are united by their trauma, grief, and shared sense of not belonging.
The story that follows is quite slow going. We get detailed descriptions of some of the lessons they attend or the walks they go on. Now and again we are reminded of the fraught political atmosphere but the major conflicts within the story stem from grief-related trauma. I wasn’t too keen on the way Miru’s backstory is presented. Not that I can’t believe that all these horrible things happened to her but the way her past was revealed to Yoon—and us—seemed to sensationalise it. In general, I can’t say that I cared for how mental health-related issues are dealt with within this novel. A character has an ED and this is portrayed almost in a poetic light.
The dialogue occasionally was just jarring. We have a scene in which character A is confessing their feelings to character B. Character B responds by saying ‘do you like more than character C?’. And character A doesn’t answer this but goes on to recount a story about a dead sparrow and then about being peer-pressured into eating a sparrow and all the while saying how they love B as much as the sorrow/tragedy they experienced in those moments. But character B keeps asking the same question (do you like me more than C?) throughout A’s sparrow speech.
The professor character remains largely off-page so I did not feel anything really towards him. Interspersed throughout the narrative are diary entries of Myungsuh and I can’t stay that these added anything (to him or the overarching story).

I appreciated some of the discussions on grief and literature but I never felt anything in particular for the characters. The ‘romances’ were very ‘meh’. They sort of happen and I can’t say I found them all that convincing.
All in all, I just think this wasn’t the right read for me. The story is boring, the characters dull and defined by their trauma, and the narrative’s tone often shifted to one that was far too sentimental for my taste. But, just because this was not a ‘win’ in my books does not mean that you should not give it a try so I recommend you check out more positive reviews if this is on your radar.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster

Riding the coattails of Little Fires Everywhere and The Vanishing Half, What’s Mine and Yours not only tells a blow-by-blow predictable tale but one that failed to entertain or elicit any feeling other than frustration in this particular reader. What’s Mine and Yours, ya basic.

To call the writing in this novel ‘prose’ seems misleading as this is some of the most lifeless writing that I have ever come across. That is not to say that it is bad or terrible but dio mio, does it lack heart (if someone had told me that this book was written by an ai i would have believed them). Anyway, as you might have already guessed, I did not like this book. In fact, it really really really irritated me. The only reason why I persevered was that I listened to the audiobook which is superbly narrated by the one and only Bahni Turpin (had it not been for her i would have dnfed this).

As with any other of my negative reviews, I encourage those who want to read this book to check out some more positive opinions. Do keep in mind that the summary is extremely misleading. The school integration is not the focus of the novel, merely a plot device to further the drama between the characters and create some tension for our star-crossed lovers.

SPOILERS BELOW

Positives
✓The opening chapter. It has the most fleshed-out character in the whole novel who for reasons does not make a single appearance after that.

Negatives
✕ Story & Structure
This novel gives a halfhearted attempt at a non-linear/multiple perspectives kind of narrative but unlike The Travellers it clearly favours certain povs and timelines over others. So while the summary will have you think that the story pivots around in particular on the school integration, well it does not. The chapters set in 2018, years after the integration has taken place, are the real focus of this novel, and jeez, how dull they were. There present readers with some dull family drama, three cardboard cut sisters (the gay one, the wannabe celebrity one, and the one who is having marriage problems and wants children). There is an attempt to make a character’s identity into a big reveal but it was obvious who they were from the very start. So, structure-wise, this novel sucks. Why implement multiperspectives’ if you are mainly sticking with two characters? The non-linear timeline adds nothing to the story, as it fails to build suspense or give a sense of mystery to certain events. The story attempts to touch upon topical & serious issues but it ultimately fails to deliver a substantial exploration of race, class, identity, and motherhood, opting instead for a very superficial social commentary that is chock full of platitudes.

✕ Characters
The characters were either lazy caricatures or reduced to one single characteristic. While I was reading I asked someone what they envisioned when I said ‘Lacey May’ and they made a face. And that’s basically it. Lacey May is the kind of character you are not meant to like. Fair enough, as I am more than able to enjoy books with dislikable characters….as long as they are given some nuance or depth. Lacey May…is portrayed as a shrill, bigoted, ‘i’m not a racist but’, self-centred white woman who is so OTT she gave me a bloody headache. Do people like her exist? Probably yes. Do I want to read pages and pages from her perspective that kind of try to humanise her but not really? No. Fuck no. How about no fucking thanks. I found Noelle to be just as unsympathetic (so you have a deadbeat father, boohoo, join the club). She has no real personality and is mainly defined by the fact that she is Lacey May’s daughter. Gee, who is Black and one of the students who ends up at Noelle’s mostly white fancy high school, is very much sidelined in favour of drama between Noelle and her mother.

✕ Sex scenes
There was an odd amount of sex scenes that…why? They were either incredibly cheesy or just plain wtf: “He was still her husband, she his wife. They moved together for a short time. It was all liquid and soft muscle, a warm mess. ” Give me a break. We even get a scene in which Gee is masturbating and…what did that add to his story? The guy already doesn’t get enough page time and you are wasting what little he has on a scene where he masturbates? Because of course, that’s what teen boys do!

✕ Low-key problematic
I am so sick of stories that punish characters who have abortions. Here that character later in life has a miscarriage and wants children but can’t have them. She eventually does have a child but with another man and after a period of cheesy self-reflection in which she confronts the ‘ghosts’ from her past.
I was also not a fan of the gay rep in this book. It had a vague hint of ‘the token gay’.

This is the book equivalent of a soap opera. It was full of clichés (married man goes to france eats croissants and has an affair with a younger woman), unnecessary melodrama involving Lacey May and her daughters, and it felt vaguely moralistic (especially the way the abortion/miscarriage were handled). The uber generic writing, as previously mentioned, was not to my taste.
This is the kind of novel that seems to have been ‘made’ with book clubs in mind. So, if you are a fan of Jojo Moyes and Kristin Hannah, chances are you’ll like it more than I did.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆


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Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

How to describe Queenie? Cringe comedy without the comedy meets misery porn? Unfunny caricatures galore? Low-key offensive towards ethnic minorities?

Look, I knew that Queenie would not be like Bridget Jones, and to be honest, that is a plus in my books (i watched the film adaptation when i first moved to britain and i found it…dated). So when I started Queenie I was hoping for something more on the lines of Chewing Gum or Fleabag….but what we get is an unfunny and not particularly nuanced narrative—starring the typical self-destructive twenty-something millennial—that in trying to be too many things, ends up being a big ol’ mess.

Queenie Jenkins is, our eponymous heroine, a Jamaican British woman living in London. She’s 25 going on 15. She’s just broken up with Tom, her white long-term boyfriend, and is clearly struggling to cope. She spends most of the novel going on about how she misses him, this guy who has the personality of a potato, and seeking validation in all the wrong places. The garbage men Queenie begins sleeping objectify and fetishize her, further damaging Queenie’s mental health. Understandably, Queenie’s obsession over her ex, her recent miscarriage, and her new lifestyle distract her from her work at a national newspaper. Yet Queenie herself remains convinced that she is a hard worker deserving of more important stories than what is currently coming her way. She has three close ‘friends’ to which she vents about her drama and how much sadder her life is compared to them. The narrative mentions that something Bad happened to Queenie when she was younger, but predictably it is not until the very end that we learn what exactly came to pass. The few flashbacks we get prior that big ‘reveal’ are awkwardly embedded in the text, and the scenes they present us felt either unnecessary or contrived (ie the information we learn through flashbacks could have been delivered to us differently, say by having Queenie actually engage in an act of introspection and realize that her boyfriend not only comes from a racist family but that his refusal to call out their racism or to stand by her makes him in many ways worse than they are).

Before I start sharing more of my negative thoughts about this novel I will mention a few things that did kind of work. I think the author does an excellent job in depicting the countless microaggressions that Queenie experiences on a daily basis—from strangers, colleagues, ‘friends’, sex partners. She also shows that in those instances when Queenie does speak up or calls out others on their racism, sexism, ignorance, she’s dismissed as just another ‘angry, loud, Black woman’. I also appreciated that Queenie’s mental health problems are not just magicked away by the power of love or some other crap. And I kind of liked her grandparents, even if they sadly play a very small role in Queenie’s story.

Now, on the not so good stuff:
1. Queenie, who believes she’s the funniest person on this earth, is not funny. The few moments of humor in this novel are provided by Kyazike, one of the few decent people in this novel. Weirdly I found it really hard to empathize with Queenie. I basically had to will myself into feeling a modicum of sympathy towards her. Which is odd given that I usually kind of love, or love-hate, self-sabotaging protagonists (My Year of Rest Relaxation, Luster, to Pizza Girl, Madame Bovary, The House of Mirth). But Queenie…she was exasperating, exhausting. A lack of self-esteem or the fact you experienced emotional abuse in your past does not mean that you should go on to become a solipsistic self-pitying person who spends 90% of her conversations with her ‘friends’ talking about herself. I mean, if that is the case I have some catching up to do. She was not a very good friend nor particularly good to her job (she briefly cares about BLM and wants to write about it but quickly forgets all about it). And she’s not funny. She’s passive, which I understand is due to her trauma but her lack of self-awareness was irritating af. I hated that the narrative paints her as always being the one who is wronged, in any interaction she has. Two awful people actually make some pretty valid criticism about her attitude but these are made moot by the fact they are shits so whatever they have to say about her cannot possibly be true. For the majority of the novel I wanted to either shout or shake Queenie because seriously, ragazza mia, wtf? I had a hard time believing that she was in her 20s as her angsty narration and behaviour seemed more suited to a teenager.

2. All of the men are trash. And they have similar names often consisting of three letters (Ted, Tom, Guy) and they are all similar shades of shitty so I had a hard time remembering who was who. I had no interest in reading scenes in which these one-dimensional shitbags denigrated Queenie.

3. The one male Pakistani character we get is a sleazy and lewd married man who rides a black BMW, uses innit every other sentence, and refers to his penis as ‘the destroyer’. His wife then chases Queenie off in a scene that seemed more suited to Family Guy. We then have Cassandra who is Jewish, judgmental, waiting for a man with the right kind of job, and uses her dad’s money. She lends Queenie money but she makes a point of reminding her of her tab and when the two are no longer friends she asks for it back. How imaginative! Yet another Jewish Princess who is obnoxiously self-involved (at one point she tells Queenie something on the lines of ‘it’s me time’).

4. The story as such consists in scene after scene depicting Queenie being mistreated. Every person she comes across is either racist, offensive, sexist, or a combination of these. And I don’t mind reading dark and depressing books. Heck, I just read and loved A Little Life. But the thing that made A Little Life bearable to read were all of those moments focusing on how Jude—who is even more self-destructive and self-loathing than Queenie—is loved by his friends and colleagues. This novel instead is hell-bent on presenting us with grotesque caricatures who either abuse or are offensive towards Queenie. Cringe comedy ensues (ahah, not).
Not only did it feel gratuitous but I also often did not believe in the author’s characters. They were either thinly rendered stereotypes or unfunny caricatures. I can bear difficult subject matters, in fact, one of my favourite series is I May Destroy You, but you have to give me some nuanced characters, not this Family Guy nonsense.

5. I am a bit tired of sexually active women being portrayed as ‘careless’ (Queenie has unprotected sex with multiple partners) and disempowered.

5. I wish the author could have trusted her readers to interpret things on their own terms.

Given my not so great opinion of this novel, if you are thinking of reading this novel, I recommend you check out some more positive reviews, especially ones from #ownvoices reviewers.

my rating: ★★½

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At the End of the Matinee by Keiichirō Hirano

Although At the End of the Matinee shares stylistic and thematic similarities with Keiichirō Hirano’s A Man, it makes for a far less intriguing read. At the End of the Matinee lacks the psychological edge that made A Man into such a compelling read. The story and characters of At the End of the Matinee have little depth, and, as the narrative progresses and the storyline veers into melodrama, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by what I was reading (and disappointed too, considering that—abrupt ending aside—I found A Man to be a well-written and engaging read).

The opening pages of At the End of the Matinee are very reminiscent of the ones from A Man. Readers are informed that the story they are about to read is real and that to “protected their privacy” this unnamed author has “altered” certain details (such as their names). Yet, whereas this ‘fiction posing as true story’ device fitted A Man (given that the novel adopts a story within a story structure) here it just seemed a half-hearted attempt to make Satoshi and Yoko’s story more interesting to the reader. This prologue, after all, has no real impact on the remainder of the narrative.

Set in the mid to late 2000s At the End of the Matinee recounts the love story between Makino, a classic guitarist who as of late has become a wee bit disillusioned by his playing and performances, and Yoko, a journalist daughter of a Japanese mother and a Croatian father, who happens to be a renowned film director. The two are introduced after one of Makino’s performances through a friend of Yoko and immediately hit it off. Yoko is however engaged to a generic American man.
Despite the distance between them—Makino is in Japan or on tours that take him all over the world while Yoko, who is based in France, is for a period reporting from Iraq— the two begin an email correspondence. Their connection to and feelings for one another are intensified by their virtual exchanges. Makino believes they are meant to be together so decides to visit Yoko once she is back in France. Their reunion is ‘complicated’ by Jalila, who was forced to leave Baghdad and is now staying with Yoko. Yoko, who is also dealing with PTSD from her experiences in Iraq, is unwilling to leave Jalila by herself so her relationship with Makino is postponed. It became quite clear that Yoko cared very little for her American fiancée, and he merely functions as a plot device to make Yoko ‘unavailable. Makino is also going through a musical crisis of sorts, he feels like he is no longer a musical prodigy and that he does not compare to up-and-coming young musicians. The guy was bland, he is the kind of male protagonist you could expect in a work by Murakami. Yoko, instead, is the kind of female character that was clearly written by a man. Her love for Makino makes her all the “more beautiful” and she “ached to give herself to [him] with total abandon, to dissolve in his arms”. After Makino declares himself to her she immediately wants “to marry him and have his child”. And we are supposed to believe that a female journalist in the 2000s has never been confronted by an arrogant and or condescending man. Yeah, two days ago a British man, who knew full well that I am Italian, felt the need to tell me about how the rest of Italy views Rome.

Half-way through the novel reaches sky-high levels of miscommunication and I hated how things unfolded. I just did not buy into any of it. It also seemed far too easy to make certain characters into ‘bad’ eggs make Yoko and Makino’s behaviour seem just. And, I am so sick of this kind of clichéd portrayal of women (Yoko with her “unself-conscious beauty”, the ‘other woman’ is vapid and big breasted—a trollop clearly—and the ‘jealous’ woman whose jealousy knows no bounds).
The story is brimming with platitudes (“Happiness was having someone with whom to share all the everyday experiences”) and spirals into soap-opera levels of melodrama. There are attempts to make Makino and Yoko Not Like Other People™ because they talk extensively of literature but I found their comparison to Death In Venice to be both contrived and ill-fitting (also, they do not seem to feel the need to point out that Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio is…problematic to say the least).
At the End of the Matinee was a vexing read. The story is clichéd, the characters lack depth, the obstacles that keep Yoko and Makino apart were overdone, and I found myself annoyed by almost every single thing I was reading (like having Yoko and Makino be Jalila’s ‘saviours’….bah!). If you have not read anything by this author I suggest you pick up A Man instead.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

For a work that was first published in 1998 Daughter of Fortune strikes me as something more suited to the 1970s. Don’t get me wrong, I love Isabel Allende’s work and she is one of my favourite authors, however, at the risk of coming across as an oversensitive zillennial, her mystification of China struck me as rather old-fashioned. The way Allende portrays other cultures and groups relies on clichés. Yes, some of these characters were, for the most part, ‘harmless’ stereotypes, but nonetheless, they did induce an eye-roll or two on my part (for instance, every indigenous woman from Chile is cuvacious and passionate).

As with many other novels by Allende Daughter of Fortune is very heavy on the telling. There are very few, if any, dialogues, which did occasionally distance me from the events Allende narrated. Still, her storytelling, for the most part, kept me engaged in the characters and their stories.
The novel begins in Chile during the 1840s. Eliza Sommers, a Chilean girl and the novel’s central character, is adopted by Rose Sommers, an unmarried Briton. Rose lives with her strict older brother and tries to raise Eliza as a ‘proper’ Victorian lady. Eliza, however, goes on to fall head-over-heels in love with a Chilean man of ‘dubious’ character. When her beloved is struck by gold fever and leaves for California, a bereft Eliza will risk her own life to be reunited with him.
The story definitely takes its time, and, the first few chapters are less focused on Eliza than a tertiary character, a certain Jacob Todd who travels to Chile after making a bet. He falls for Rose but she clearly does return his affection. We also read about his friends, Feliciano Rodriguez de Santa Cruz and his wife, whose role in the novel feels rather superfluous. During Part I we also learn more about Rose and her brothers and of Eliza’s childhood with them.
The remainder of the novel details Eliza’s epic journey to find the man she loves. During this time Eliza becomes acquainted with Tao Chi’en, a shanghaied physician who for a time worked as a cook on a ship captained by Rose’s other brother, John. Across two lengthy chapters, Allende recounts Tao’s life, from his early days to his marriage and, after his wife’s death, of his eventual disillusionment. Once in California Eliza and Tao grow closer and it is their bond that truly makes this novel. Allende, quite clearly, shows that Eliza’s feelings towards her paramour lead her to idealize this poco di buono man. Yet, her devotion towards him is such that she is willing to spend years of her life in search of him, passing as a young man in order to travel with more freedom.
The novel is certainly full of drama and Allende frequently falls prey to sappy platitudes (about love, destiny, desire, womanhood).
But whereas I could easily overlook Allende’s tendency towards the melodramatic, I had a harder time looking past her clichéd portrayal of China, its culture, and people. When the narrative is relating Tao’s youth, Allende, quite out of the blue, feels the obligation of using a metaphor involving rice (when describing a Chinese mother’s grief: “the little girl’s accident was like the grain of rice that makes the bowl overflow.”). Tao, who is in his thirties, is described looking as sometimes looking like a teenager, and, “ancient as a turtle”, so that “it was easy then to believe that he had lived many centuries”. Whyyyyyy do we have to compare the one Chinese character to a turtle?! And of course, because he is an East Asian man he has to have “delicate ” hands.
Allende includes many other stereotypes about China, and I just have very little patience for this sort of stuff. It didn’t help that Allende includes a plethora of clichés (such as prostitutes with hearts of gold, or Eliza ‘rescuing’ a Native American boy….come on Allende!).
Yes, there were many beautiful descriptions and Allende clearly researched this period of history but I had a hard time getting to like or care for her characters (who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, judgemental, anti-abortion). While it made sense, given that the story takes place during the 1840s, it made it difficult for me to actually relate or sympathize with the characters. Eliza was beautiful (in an unconventional way, of course), kind, and clever. The classic heroine. Her love for this guy was definitely of the insta-love variety, and while the narrative does point this out, I struggled to understand what possessed her to follow this guy whose blandness is such that I cannot recollect his name.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the development between Tao and Eliza, and it was refreshing to see a Chinese man be not only one of the main characters but the heroine’s love interest. I wish the novel had focused exclusively on them, with less of the ‘will they won’t they’ subplot.
Overall, the novel is kind of cheesy and rather dated. Still, fans of Allende who are less ‘sensitive’ than I am will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

 

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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