Sunday, June 21, 2015

Mambo In Chinatown - Jean Kwok

18693922Oooooh, this was a complicated book for me.  On one hand, I loved it.  On the other, it frustrated me immensely.

I loved it for a few reasons.  First, it's pretty much like a Chinatown version of Take the Lead or Step Up or one of those other dance movies, which I love, but with an adult as the main character instead of a teenager.  I liked Charlie.  I thought she was a relatable main character, with a realistic backstory who struggles with a lot of things and is happy to finally find a place where she fits in and succeeds, without it seeming like she's been constantly victimized.  She takes care of her father and her younger sister and sees her family as a priority, but she's still a young American woman (technically, American-Born Chinese) who wants some measure of independence.  That longing for independence doesn't fit in with her father's views on the world; he thinks Charlie should be the obedient daughter, like she would be if she'd grown up in China.  Charlie's struggles to balance the two different worlds she enters were a great way of showing the cultural push and pull that can act on immigrant families and second-generation Americans.  I also really liked the cast of supporting characters, in particular Ryan (obviously) and Nina (also obviously).  They seemed very real, like they were real people in and of themselves and not put on the page just to support Charlie.  And the dancing aspect!  I loved it.  I wish I could ballroom dance, and while for some reason I thought this was a historical novel, something along the lines of Lisa See's China Dolls, I was very happy with the modern setting because of the whole competitive ballroom dance aspect it brought to the table.

The main thing I didn't like about this book is that it made me dislike myself.  There are a few reasons for this, and all of them have to do with aspects of the book I didn't like, but knew I was viewing unfairly, or did like and knew I shouldn't.

First, I pretty much wanted to punch Charlie's dad in the face for most of the book.  He was so set in his ways that he was completely unwilling to consider anything else: wanting Charlie to marry someone he's always known, preferably via matchmaker; using eastern medicine and witchcraft to treat Lisa's condition even when it obviously wasn't doing anything, and was convinced that Charlie couldn't make a single decision, from what to wear to where to work to who to visit, without his approval.  I knew this was a cultural thing, because Charlie's dad immigrated to the US from China, which is much more conservative with how children act in regards to their parents' wishes, and therefore I knew I shouldn't be upset, just understanding that there was a cultural divide.  But I still wanted to punch him, and that made me frustrated with myself.  Also, he really did an about-face at the end of the book that I think could have been handled differently.  In order for the ending to work, he needed to become more flexible, but I think it could have been made into a more gradual process.

Second, Lisa.  I wanted to slap Lisa just as much as Charlie did at times, and I knew that was wrong.  (Well, for most the book I didn't feel so bad about it, but then came the Big Reveal, and then I felt awful about it.)  I get why Lisa was so uncommunicative, in hindsight, because that's very typical for what she was going through, but at the same time I wanted to smack her upside the head and tell her she was being an idiot.  Which is stupid, because she's twelve, and was dealing with some horrible stuff in addition to feeling like her sister had suddenly abandoned her, and that made me frustrated with myself, too.

Third, Ryan.  I looooved Ryan.  I thought he was awesome.  I know not everyone did, and there are definitely reasons for that, and that brings me to the thing that I liked that I shouldn't have which makes me angry: Ryan and his girlfriend, Fiona.  See, for pretty much the entire book, Ryan is in a long-distance relationship with a girl named Fiona.  And yet he starts to get involved with Charlie.  I loved the dynamic between Ryan and Charlie, the sort of "it's forbidden but we really like each other and connect" sort of thing (I'm a sucker for that, I freely admit it) but it really bothered me that they were going along with it when they were both aware that Ryan was technically already in a relationship.  Infidelity is something I am not okay with as a plot device, and the fact that I liked Ryan and Charlie together even though Ryan had a girlfriend (even a conspicuously absent girlfriend) really bothered me.  I think the plot could have worked just as well without the girlfriend aspect, because Charlie wasn't really allowed to date Ryan anyway because he was a student, and I would have been much more open to that relationship if Fiona hadn't been an issue.

So, I was pretty conflicted about a lot of parts of this book, but at the same time I couldn't stop reading and I really loved the narrative as a whole.  Because of that, I can't wholeheartedly give it a glowing review, but this is definitely something I would read again--albeit maybe as a guilty pleasure.

Also, I kind of wish Todd got his own book.

3.5 to 4 stars out of 5.

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