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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book Review: China Dolls by Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan

I wanted to like this book. Really, truly I did. But there were problems. For me, the biggest problem is that the book made me mentally pull out my editor’s pen and never put it away. While that’s a big problem, it’s not the worst – at least this book I think is fixable.

This is a chick lit novel of 3 Chinese-American women in their late 20s in Manhattan. The biggest issue for me, that would have fixed 70% of the problems, is the structure. First M.J.’s story is told, then Alex’s, then Lin’s. The whole story takes place over a year (bookended by visits to a fortune teller on Chinese New Year’s) and each woman’s story is told sequentially and consecutively. So they don’t overlap at all. M.J. and Alex each get about 2 months for her story, Lin’s takes 8 because she goes to London for 6 months, although it’s really the 2 months before London that are her story. As such, everything is highly compressed. You have the whole traditional chick lit story arc – introduce our protagonist, introduce a couple of men, have her pick the wrong one, go through a whole mini relationship, break up, get over him, and then pick up with the new guy – in only 60 days, and 80 pages. Sure, I buy that this happens from time to time, but not to three best friends all in such a short time frame. And it’s repetitive. While each woman’s story is going on, the other 2 are simply shunted aside to an occasional chorus/conscience role and are indistinguishable. Nothing goes on in their stories whatsoever while they’re on hold. Meanwhile, because of the 60 day deadline, the protagonist at hand seems overly emotional, erratic, short-tempered, and impulsive (otherwise there wouldn’t be enough forward movement of plot, as there isn’t enough time for it to progress at a normal pace.) This does our girls no favors. Also they are all too similar. They all work in male-dominated industries, they all are treated misogynistically at some point and react with anger (can’t just one of them react with humor? Or work in a 21-st century workplace where alpha males are at least forced to keep their sexual-harassment comments to themselves?) They all want to get married and have kids. But they all have only had bad relationships with other Chinese men who apparently are all sexist assholes (not my opinion – this stereotype is consistent and loud throughout the novel.) They all have a boyfriend from the past resurface during their story, although with varying results. If the structure was changed so that perhaps each chapter alternated narration and all three women had 12 months for their story to unfold, many of the above issue would either go away, or the repetitions would have been so much more obvious when they were side-by-side rather than separated by 100 pages.

The stereotyping and yelling and crying all needed to be toned down drastically. There was also some sloppiness that should have been caught in editing. For instance on p. 18 M.J. bumps into a long-ago acquaintance, Kevin, while in the press room at Madison Square Garden. She says “What are you doing here?” and when she introduces Kevin to Ming, he says “So, you and M. J. are old high school pals, huh?” On the very next page she runs into Jagger and says “what are you doing here?” (gee, a producer for RealSports, what would he be doing at Madison Square Garden at a Knicks practice?) She introduces him to Kevin, and he says “So, you knew M.J. back in high school huh?” Also Brady takes out a cigarette in his office! On p. 154 which made me wonder if it was 1986. M.J. has a DVD of favorite Michael Jordan highlights, but sends out her audition clips for sportscaster jobs on VHS. Oh, and both she and Alex drive cars! In New York City! Alex and Lin make 6-figure salaries but M.J. doesn’t, so where does she park her car and why on earth does she have one? It only appears once in one scene, and there’s no reasons he couldn’t have been in a cab or even on the subway.

All this being said, I liked the breezy tone. I liked that this was a slightly different take on the usual chick lit genre. I loved that the women all had real jobs and were successful and had their own apartments. I hate the chick lit novels where a confused woman just sits around waiting for life to happen to her so she doesn’t have to make any decisions. While I was very frustrated by this book, I do look forward to their next one to see if hopefully they learned a lot after this one which should make for an improvement.

Oh, and publishers, please stop publishing first-time-novelists of chick lit in hardcover. Just stop it. That’s what original trade paperbacks are for. This was a perfect book for that format, not hardcover.

It's certainly true that once an editor, always an editor. But when reading for fun, I want to be able to keep that part of my brain shelved.

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