Review | Waiting for a Star to Fall, by Kerry Clare

Kerry Clare’s Waiting for a Star to Fall tells the story of Brooke, a young woman much like many sharing their stories in the #MeToo movement. Brooke is barely out of high school and partying at a club when she is approached by handsome, charismatic politician Derek Murdoch. The novel begins a few years later, after their relationship had already failed, and Derek is in the news due to accusations made against him by other young staffers. It then switches back and forth from the week the accusations come out, and the “before” times, when Brooke and Derek had a relationship.

What sets Clare’s novel apart from a lot of the media discourse around the #MeToo movement is that Clare sets the story at a point where Brooke herself is still ambivalent about her feelings for Derek. She’s quick to jump to his defence, never going so far as to call his accusers liars, but rather firm in her conviction that what she had with him wasn’t abuse. Moreover, despite the truly reprehensible way he treated her in the final days of their relationship (I clearly have strong feelings about him!), Brooke very clearly still cares for him.

Waiting for a Star to Fall is an emotionally difficult read, not just because of the all-too-real, all-too-familiar story of a #MeToo experience, but also because of how it explores the long-lasting effects of this abuse. Like it is for many women who experience abuse, moving on from Derek isn’t as easy for Brooke as it may seem on the outside. Rather, it’s a years-long, multi-step process, first acknowledging the wrong done to you, then trying to rid yourself of the last vestiges of emotional ties to your abuser.

Clare takes us through Brooke’s entire journey on this front, from Brooke’s initial infatuation with Derek, all the way to her present-day struggle to maintain control over her own narrative. It’s tough to read, and potentially triggering. The entire time Brooke is falling in love with Derek, I just wanted to yell at her to get away, and it was gut-wrenching to not be able to stop the relationship and its inevitable decline from happening. The ending, while too realistic to be an uncomplicated happily ever after, was satisfying. And it provided the kind of closure that made me hope and believe that Brooke will be all right.

Something else I appreciated about this novel was its frank portrayal of abortion. [Spoiler redacted] gets one. The decision, event, and aftermath are treated as the major life events they are, but never with shame or censure. [Spoiler redacted] makes an informed, rational choice to abort, and is even level-headed enough to know the period of time that must elapse before she can resume having sex without risking infection. She declares, unequivocally, that she regrets getting pregnant in the first place, but doesn’t regret the abortion. She even gives a shout-out to the movie Dirty Dancing, which was the first time she saw on screen a character who outright wanted an abortion, and whose agency wasn’t taken away from her by a convenient miscarriage. Kerry Clare gives us a frank, sympathetic portrayal of a decision that’s very personal and complex, and that unfortunately still faces tremendous social stigma. More of this in fiction, please.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | White Ivy, by Susie Yang

A contemporary, Chinese American spin on Talented Mr Ripley, White Ivy explores themes of racism (overt and internalized), family, immigration, and the struggle women (particularly women of colour) face when making it in a man’s world. Main character Ivy Lin is a fantastic anti-heroine — complex, cunning, and charismatic — with a deep-rooted vulnerability that makes you root for her. I was completely captivated by Ivy’s story, full of scheming and plotting, all of which is centred around her very human need for love, belonging, and purpose. I absolutely loved this book, and highly recommend it for anyone.

Ivy Lin grows up a super successful thief. She takes advantage of her youthful, innocent appearance (hell yeah! to turning racist Asian stereotypes to one’s advantage). She is also taught these skills by her Chinese immigrant grandmother, who later rather hypocritically scolds Ivy for continuing to steal long after the grandmother no longer needs her services as an accomplice. Here again is a note that hits home: Ivy’s grandmother argues that it’s okay for her to steal, because she’s an immigrant from an impoverished village in China who needs to survive, whereas Ivy is an American-born citizen, with all the privileges and access to American opportunities implied by that status. Yes, it’s a self-serving double standard, but it also feels real, and highlights some very real expectations immigrant families can have for their American children. Because, after all, the chance for these American children to have a better life, and not have to struggle or compromise as their immigrant parents or grandparents did, is part of the entire point of leaving one’s home country in the first place.

Much of Ivy’s scheming centers around her rich, handsome, white classmate Gideon Speyer. Ivy crushes on Gideon as a child, and when she runs into Gideon’s sister Sylvia in adulthood, Ivy grabs the opportunity to insert herself into Gideon’s world. I absolutely love how Ivy isn’t so much attracted by Gideon himself, but rather by what Gideon represents: whiteness and inherited wealth, two pillars of privilege Ivy can never herself claim.

I love how much the author integrates Ivy’s family, and their pasts, into Ivy’s story. Through this, it’s clear that Ivy’s pursuit of Gideon isn’t about attaining a romantic ideal, nor is it even just about achieving some kind of lifestyle. Rather, it’s about obtaining the perceived pinnacle of the so-called “American dream” her parents immigrated to the US to achieve. If, by proximity to Gideon, Ivy can also become a part of white, wealthy society, then she fulfills the dreams her family has worked so hard, and sacrificed so much, for.

In contrast to Gideon is Ivy’s childhood friend Roux. He lives in Ivy’s neighbourhood, is raised by a single immigrant mother (Romanian), and is also a skilled thief. In short, he’s everything Ivy wants to escape becoming. When Roux re-enters Ivy’s life as an adult, and confesses his feelings for her, he puts all she’s worked for into jeopardy. Roux’s reappearance sets off a bit of a love triangle subplot, and the thriller section of the novel.

And again, I’m blown away by the intricate, interwoven layers throughout this novel. As much as Ivy wants to be part of Gideon’s world, she continues to be undeniably attracted to Roux, yet, equally undeniably, she refuses to be drawn back into the life she could have with Roux. Here, we see how much Gideon’s attraction for Ivy isn’t his wealth, but rather his social status as a wealthy WASP.

I realize I talk a lot about Ivy’s desire for Gideon’s whiteness. This is similar to a stereotypical trope that is rarely, possibly never, done well, and I’ve seen far too many novels, often by white writers, of submissive Asian women who get gooey eyed over white saviour heroes. In White Ivy, Yang successfully subverts this trope, and shows how an Asian American lens completely changes the way the trope is handled. Unlike the characters in those other novels, Ivy is the one driving the narrative, and using her proximity to whiteness to her advantage. More importantly, the narrative is, at all times, self-aware, always somehow managing to keep us within Ivy’s perspective, while at the same time, signalling to us why some of her perspective is shaped by the racism she faces in society. It’s a difficult balancing act, yet Yang manages to pull it off.

Perhaps most importantly, alongside Ivy’s desire to become part of a piece of society different from her own, is the very rich story of her grandmother and mother. We initially see both figures from Ivy’s perspective, yet as the story progresses, we learn more about both women, and all they’ve done and sacrifice to get to where they are. By the end of the novel, it’s clear that White Ivy isn’t just the story of one Chinese American woman, but rather a multi-generational, matrilineal tale. While Ivy’s mother and grandmother’s stories form fairly brief flashbacks or conversations in the overall novel, the thematic thread that runs through all three of their lives is powerful. The way in which the three generations influence each other, while keeping parts of their own stories under wraps, is beautiful and moving.

White Ivy is downright brilliant, one of my favourite novels this year. It’s a compelling, fast-paced thriller. It’s also a love story, featuring a wide range of different kinds of love. It’s the kind of story you can zip through in a single afternoon, and the type of novel you can spend a full semester unpacking in a university English literature class. I loved it, and cannot recommend it enough.

Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Silent Music, by Kate Lord Brown

In 1960s New York, ballet teacher Tess learns that her husband Kit wants a divorce, just before their son Bobby announces he’s getting married. For the sake of their son, Tess and Kit agree to postpone the divorce until after Bobby’s marriage, but that poses a challenge, and old secrets come to light, when Bobby’s future uncle-in-law Marco starts showing an interest in Tess.

Silent Music is a quiet, lovely book. The developing relationship between Tess and Marco is sweet and tender, rather than passionate. We get hints throughout that Tess and Kit’s marriage has not been a happy one, and that Kit has been an uncaring, at times cruel, husband. So it’s heartwarming to see Tess’s confidence grow in the face of Marco’s unwavering admiration. There’s a lovely plot thread about a pair of shoes Marco designs for Tess to wear to Bobby’s wedding, and the final design turns out to be much bolder than Tess believed herself capable of wearing.

While it would have been very easy to make Marco simply a charming hero, somewhat akin to Andy Garcia’s Fernando in Mamma Mia 2, I like that the author has given him struggles of his own as well. As much as he helps Tess come out of her shell, being with Tess also gives Marco a fresh spark of life. Without giving too much away, there’s a secret he’s keeping from Tess, and the way this plot thread is treated shows how much Tess helps him live with this aspect of his life. Their love story isn’t super passionate or exciting, but rather the kind of love a couple settles into: comfortable and companionable.

From the book’s description on Goodreads, I thought there would be a lot more about Tess and Kit’s relationship in Hong Kong in 1939, and also a lot more about Tess’s career as a ballet dancer and ballet teacher. I was disappointed that this wasn’t the case. We do get a bit of history on their relationship at the beginning and towards the end of the novel, but otherwise, the story very much focuses on the weeks leading up to Bobby’s wedding.

I also ended up hating Bobby as a character. From being a loving son who was totally clueless about his parents’ marital issues, Bobby turns downright misogynistic, and outright slut-shames his mother. Kit rightly calls him out on that, and Bobby eventually changes his mind, but he was nowhere near sorry enough. I can understand that the author may have been trying to reflect social attitudes in the 60s, but I still really disliked Bobby, and downright wished his fiancee would leave him for someone better.

I also wish we’d learned more about Kit. He was a terrible husband, who married Tess for reasons other than love, and we get several hints of what those reasons are throughout the novel. But he still didn’t really seem fully fleshed out by the end. Likely, this is a case of the marketing copy being misleading — the book summary on Goodreads gave me the impression that the story would focus on Tess and Kit, and it took me a while to realize Marco was going to play a large part in this story. Still, I thought Kit’s character could have been better fleshed out.

Thanks to the author for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.