I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
Let’s start with what doesn’t work about this young adult novel. It’s way too long. It’s over 400 pages and it seems to cover almost everything that could possibly happen to a teenage boy in less than a year of his life. I kept thinking this had to be the end and realizing I still had pages to go. Which isn’t to say it’s unreadable because it’s not a difficult read at all and I got through it in a couple of days. The story is engaging and the narrator is likeable.
Our narrator and protagonist is Frank Li, a teenage California high schooler, a first generation Korean-American. Born in the United States, Frank’s parents immigrated to America before he or his older sister were born. They’ve made a successful life for themselves, owning and running a grocery store where they work non-stop. Frank doesn’t really know his parents or have a close relationship with them. They literally don’t speak the same language as Frank’s Korean is minimal and his parents’ English is imperfect. Their expectations for Frank are high – score well on the SATs, go to a good school, marry a nice Korean girl.
That last expectation is a serious one, as Frank well knows after his sister Hanna is disowned for marrying a black man. So Frank knows he’s in trouble when he begins to fall in love with Brit, a white girl in his Calculus class. There’s no way he can ever introduce her to his parents. It just so happens though that his friend, Joy, also Korean, has a similar problem.
The storyline plays out rather as you would expect, with some minor twists along the way. Where the novel really shines is its portrayal of inter-generation conflict and the struggle of immigrants and their children in North America. From the language to the conversations Frank has with his mom and dad to the way their community is formed, this all rang very, very true.
This isn’t my own experience but it is one I’m fairly familiar with. Growing up in Vancouver, in a very multicultural neighbourhood and high school, many of my friends were first generation. While the language barrier that Frank has with his parents wasn’t one I saw among my friends, I definitely knew girls who kept boyfriends secret from their parents, including elaborate plans and fake phone numbers that actually belonged to a cousin (this was before cell phones). The pressure on many of those kids to succeed, to make their parents’ sacrifices worthwhile, was huge. There was not always a lot of space for personal choice and freedom.
Yoon paints Frank’s parents sympathetically but honestly. Early in the novel there is a scene where they make fun of Chinese people. It’s pretty classically racist but also painfully familiar. Those racial divides were very real in my own high school and I’ve heard all of Frank’s parents’ terrible jokes before. Frank’s best friend, Q, is black and this too creates an interesting dichotomy. Frank’s mom and dad are fine with a black friend but not a black son-in-law. Frank and Q are close and have been for years but Frank is never comfortable having Q in his home because he knows his parents might say something offensive. For me, it brought back a memory of a high school friend telling me her mom didn’t initially want us to be friends because she didn’t like white girls. The story was a compliment, that I wasn’t “like other white girls” who were disrespectful and dressed provocatively but it still made me uncomfortable.
These stories are still not overly common in books today but they’re so important. For both the people they reflect and for those of us who haven’t lived this experience. This makes up a significant portion of North Americans and it’s a delight to hear these voices and have these stories told.