A Review of Justina Chen Headley’s Nothing But the Truth (And A Few White Lies) (Little Brown for Young Readers, 2007); Justina Chen Headley’s Girl Overboard (Little Brown for Young Readers, 2008); Justina Chen Headley’s North of Beautiful (Little Brown for Young Readers, 2010); Cynthia Kadohata’s Outside Beauty (Atheneum Books, 2008; Paula Yoo’s Good Enough (HarperTeen, 2008).
Justina Chen Headley’s Nothing But the Truth (And A Few White Lies) explores the complications of growing up as a biracial Taiwanese American. The protagonist, Patty Ho, is a dispirited 15 year old freshman just about to head into the summer, who is looking to find a little bit more acceptance. Her big brother, Abe, has already set a high bar for her as he has been admitted into Harvard. Her domineering mother expects very much the same for her, even though Patty generally finds intellectualism to follow along the oft-maligned model minority stereotype. Patty, not surprisingly, faces some real demons with respect to her biracial identity and cannot seem to find bearings in either the “white” or Asian worlds. The absence of her father also seems to be a major vacuum in her life and her mother tells her very little concerning her father. Once Patty is sent off to a summer math camp at Stanford, her life begins to take major turns. It was interesting to see a novel with much of the scenes actually taking place at Stanford, a campus I have gotten to know pretty well over the last four years. Headley obviously has some insider knowledge of the campus given her educational background and she makes full use of it, especially taking into account the various Rodin sculpture gardens that can be found there. Headley’s gift is that she makes a narrative resolve with so much possibility and closure without making you feel as though she’s too neatly giving her characters a positive trajectory. There’s always a complexity and depth to her work that makes it a treat to dive from one novel into the next.
Girl Overboard is another winning story with a fun protagonist. This time the novel is told through the viewpoint of Syrah Cheng, a high school student who recently has recovered from a serious knee injury incurred during a snowboarding accident. The accident was severe enough that her father, the billionaire magnate, Ethan Cheng, and mother, Betty Cheng, forbid her from continuing to snowboard despite her continuing interest in the sport. Her family’s vast fortune proves to be a significant problem for Syrah, as she must navigate the particularly perilous world of high school sociality, where it is difficult for her to figure out whether or not someone is befriending her because they are actually interested in her or because they think it will get them closer to her father. Further still, her half-sister Grace and half-brother Wayne prove to be seriously antagonistic foes. Of course, no Headley novel would be complete without a romance plot. After Syrah’s relationship with another talented snowboarder named Jared falters, we’re wondering whether or not she will kindle something with Age, a fellow snowboarder, who also happens to be engaging in his own romance with Syrah’s romantic rival, a girl named Natalia. Though their relationship has always remained in the much vilified friend zone, a continuing spark between the two suggests something might happen. Once Syrah makes a valuable friend in a fellow student, Lilian Fujimori, does her life start to take a turn for the better.
The most interesting element to me in this narrative is the conception of class and relative oppression. In this novel, Syrah and her family are exceedingly privileged. Indeed, they stand over and above many of their “white” counterpart characters and exert considerable control over them. Syrah’s father, too, also reminds me of the Ongian “flexible citizen,” in that they have businesses and residencies all over the world. Once we discover that Syrah’s mother, Betty, has an extended family that is not necessarily or nearly as well off, there is a different class register introduced that suggests that the Chinese diaspora cannot be so effectively grouped under some sort of financial elitism.
Justina Chen Headley’s North of Beautiful is a briskly paced, young adult novel that focuses on the life of a teenager named Terra who happens to have an unsightly port-wine stain birthmark that covers a large portion of her face. This birthmark is the subject of much consternation not only to her but also her family and she continually explores different surgical options that would minimize what she and they see as a physical defect. Thus, the novel queries the incredible value we place on looks and the exterior in contrast to other qualities that Terra seems to have in amazing abundance; Terra is a gifted artist and also happens to be a particularly empathetic person. A big turning point in her life occurs when she and her mother are involved in a car accident with an affluent woman named Joanna and her adopted ethnically Chinese son, Jacob. As Terra and her mother eventually develop a strong bond with both Joanna and Jacob, they decide to collectively embark on a trip to China. The trip to China serves two purposes: on the one hand, it offers Joanna and Jacob that chance to visit Jacob’s orphanage and on the other, it offers Terra and her mother to visit Terra’s brother (and her mother’s son), Merc. Complicating this major plot line is that Terra’s family life is particularly troubled; her cartographer father is especially domineering and casts a major pall over all family proceedings. Her brothers Claudius and Merc avoid coming home at all costs to the extent that Terra and her mother rarely, if ever, get to see them.
Headley is very talented within this genre. The narrative is entertaining and we never lose our way as readers, despite the relatively lengthy page count. The only critique I had of the actual content occurs when it shifts to China. There are multiple moments where the racially unmarked main characters are read as being “more Chinese than the Chinese,” but I couldn’t help but thinking that this approach could be problematically read. Indeed, Jacob’s own narrative is rather hastily drawn to a conclusion and does little to draw out why affluent and mobile white characters might have the ability to acquire so-called Chinese-ness with such ease. At the same time, we’ll wonder about the scenes from the orphanage that only fleetingly remind us of the economies circumscribing transracial adoption.
A Review of Cynthia Kadohata’s Outside Beauty (2008, Atheneum Books)
A colleague of mine had actually recommended me to read Cynthia Kadohata’s Outside Beauty a couple of years ago, but since I wasn’t dipping into the young adult category yet, I put this reading suggestion on the backburner. One of the comments my colleague had made was that she was surprised that this novel was marketed as a young adult novel given its topic matter. I can see where she was coming from after having finished it. The novel takes a pretty weighty topic in that the main character, Shelby, is one of four daughters, who have all been fathered by different men. Shelby’s mother, Helen, is a strikingly beautiful American woman of Japanese descent, who seems to value nothing more than her physical appearance and the advantages it gives her when attracting men. Shelby’s three sisters, Marilyn, Lakey, and Maddie, are of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and they often are seen traveling itinerantly from one location to another, as their mother goes from one man to another. When their mother gets into a serious car accident, the four sisters are separated and forced to live with their respective fathers. Thus, Kadohata’s novel seems at its core really a novel about sisterhood and the importance of that particular blood bond. Especially problematic is the relationship between Maddie and her father, Mr. Bronson, who is a clear disciplinarian. Shelby’s father, Jiro, is a Japanese transnational that happened to marry Helen while he was visiting the United States as a tourist; they were married in Las Vegas; their marriage lasts two days and it is soon annulled. Given all of the familial turbulence, Shelby’s maturity is probably the most surprising element of the novel, but Kadohata also seems intent on suggesting that familial formations need not be normative for constitutive kinships.
A Review of Paula Yoo’s Good Enough (HarperTeen, 2008).
There are some big cringe-inducing moments from me in Paula Yoo’s young adult novel, Good Enough, which focuses on Patti Yoon (versus Paula Yoo? hmm), a teen violinist of exceptional talent, who feels as though she must choose between the expectations set forth by her parents and her own musical interests. The cringe-inducing moments occur because Yoo knows how to stereotype the Korean American community, focusing on Christian Evangelicals and the model minority mythos to create a high school atmosphere that was very reminiscent of my own. So, there was a lot of self-identification going on in this novel. The problem with all of this, of course, is that people might assume that Yoo’s representation speaks entire truths, which it cannot, so I would encourage any who ends up reading the novel to look past some of the cursory tonal approaches that make it seem as if Patti speaks for all Korean Americans, which she obviously does not. In any case, with that lecture over, I can focus a bit more on plot. Patti is strongly considering a future in music, despite the fact that her parents got her involved with music seemingly to help her develop a talent that might give her an edge in college admissions, not so that she could make a career out of it. Her parents want her to attend a university of ivy-league caliber, while her music teacher and her crush, Ben, suggest she apply to Juilliard. Because Patti is a “successful” model minority, she ends up getting into a slew of ivy leagues and also surreptitious applies to Juilliard and also receives admittance there. So, the novel’s concluding sequence deals with Patti’s choice: Juilliard, for her music, or “HarvardYalePrinceton,” the ivy league mantra that has been beaten into her brain for years. Again, I think the danger of this novel is that it traffics so closely to existing model minority paradigms, so much so that we want far more rebellion from the characters. Patti’s version of failure is sneaking out to a rock concert with Ben. She was supposed to be attending a church event, called a “Lock-in.” Her parents discover she is not there when they excitedly hurry over to tell her that she’s received over a 2300 on her SATS (out of 2400). Back in MY olden days, the highest score you could receive was 1600. YIKES. But, this book does serve another personal purpose for me: it makes me forever glad that high school is over.
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