I received a copy from Netgalley.
Another case of really good book but I’m not all that sure I really liked the main character much. The novel is about dealing with deep depression, and grief after the suicide of a parent and learning about said parent’s cultural heritage.
One thing I really loved about the book was the look into Taiwanese culture, something I know nothing about. Main character Leigh is half white on her dad’s side and Taiwanese on her mother’s side. She’s never known her mother’s parents who live in Taiwan, when her mother left to marry her father it caused a big split in the family.
Leigh has a huge crush on her best friend Axel, over time her feelings for him have developed and she’s super jealous of Axel’s girlfriend. (This was really annoying. There weren’t many females Leigh’s age mentioned in the novel other than Leigh’s one other friend Caro and anyone girl who wasn’t Caro Leigh doesn’t seem to like, from what I remember, it got annoying fast.)
Leigh is an artist, she loves drawing and sees the world and her emotions in color. She and Axel have a thing where something is happening and Axel will ask her “what color?” and she will respond with whatever shade she sees at that particular moment. I don’t think it was synesthesia just her way of looking at the world. Initially this came across as kind of pretentious. I very nearly DNFed this book several times at the beginning. It felt very long winded and over written, and maybe there was something about it I just wasn’t getting.
The description for the book hinted and magical realism which is one of my favorite things, so I stuck it out to see where it would come in.
Leigh’s world changes, starting with a defining moment with Axel to the sudden shock of her mother’s suicide. She’s completely numb and devastated. Her emotions are all over the place and it’s completely understandable. While I could empathize with Leigh and could understand the massive trauma and shock such a horrific thing can do to a person, as a character I found her flat and hard to connect with.
She finds herself heading to Taiwan to meet grandparents from her mother’s side she never knew while her dad throws himself into his work for the summer. The grandparents don’t speak much English and Leigh doesn’t speak much Mandarin though she is learning. There’s a lot of foreign language spoken in the book which sometimes can be very jarring when you don’t speak the other language (or can be for me which sounds terrible and very white privilege, I know) though in this book it just fit in the narrative and was really interesting to learn some new words and phrases.
Leigh has an experience before heading to Taiwan where she thinks she sees her mother in the body of a red bird and becomes convinced she has to find the bird and the bird has now turned up in Taiwan with her. There is a cultural legend revolving around the reasons why.
A young lady called Feng, a friend of the grandparents shows up to help with the cultural differences and language barriers. Leigh learns about Spirit Week and some of the festivals taking place at the time she is visiting. While thanks to her mom’s influences Leigh is fairly well versed Taiwanese cooking, but there’s a whole host more to learn when she’s there. The descriptions of the food sound absolutely divine.
The narrative is in a then and now format - what happened with Axel and Caro before and what’s happening in the present. This also ties in the magical realism aspect when Leigh starts accessing her memories of her mom and not just her memories. There’s a really fascinating element where she can see her mom’s past memories as well. Leigh learns some things she never knew about, and has to come to terms with some things she did but couldn’t really bring herself to accept.
There’s a wonderful family dynamic as hard as it can be for one family, when she meets her friend Caro, Caro’s family is so different and vibrant from Leigh’s own more sombre one. The difference is kind of heart breaking but interesting at the same time.
Leigh and her family visit all her mom’s favorite places in Taiwan. Which again is completely absorbing. It’s beautifully described and beautifully written. Though Leigh can be quite a bitch to Feng who’s only trying to be nice and help. Feng has a really unexpected back story and there’s a twist to her character as well.
The other focus of the novel is Leigh’s plans for college and her future. She desperately wants to follow art but her dad is pressuring her to find something more practical. Leigh has to figure out whether she wants to do something that’s right or follow her heart to find something in the field that she really loves.
And then there’s her relationship with Axel. (Kind of predictable and bit eye rolling) but did make me smile at the end.
Despite a rocky start, I’m glad I stuck with the novel as it really did get better and by the end I loved it, and it made me quite teary in places. While sad in some respects, there were some uplifting moments. An honest and believable novel, at times hard and unflinchingly difficult in the narrative. But definitely worth a read. And most certainly an author that is going on my auto buy list. I loved this so much by the end I did buy a finished copy.
Thank you to Netalley and Hatchette Children’s Books for the review copy.