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Sunday, June 27, 2010
Review: Wait For Me by An Na
Title: Wait for Me
Author(s): An Na
Genre: YA Contemporary, family, romance
Page Count: 192
The Summary: Teenager Mina plays the Perfect Straight-A Model Asian daughter, but she knows more than anyone that this is a lie, and her chances at getting into Harvard are basically nil. Suna is Mina's deaf sister, dependent on her sister and starving for a glimpse of any affection from her mother, who leaves her in neglect. The presence of Ysrael, a new employee into their family's laundromat brings about a whole new chain of events as the two start cracking the mold they fit into their lives...
The Review: Wow, this is a complicated book to review. Let me say first that above all else, this novel haunted me. Having read An Na’s The Fold before, I came into this book not quite prepared for this much darker tone presented in this novel. I’m not sure whether my emotional response had more to do with Na’s writing or simply her subject matter, but the story and Mina’s voice lingered long after I put down the book, always at the back of my mind.
This book wasn’t an easy read for me. I must have walked away from this book over ten times within its rather short 200-ish pages. And I suspect it has a lot to do with An Na’s take on the Model Minority Myth: because that was what it was. A myth. A lie. And how damaging keeping up pretences can be. I was so struck by Mina and Jonathon, the lengths they would go to put up that Model Minority front even as they wanted to be something, someonemore, because this is such a reality, people. I know it seems extreme, the lengths these characters go in trying to keep the image of the Perfect A Asian student who does well at school, but I’ve seen this happen, to my Asian classmates, my cousins, my friends, those close and around me. I know that it could be easy to respond to these issues brought up by simply saying “follow your dream” and I can see readers being frustrated at Mina for lying and not doing the things she wants for herself, but for me these kinds of things have never been a straight-cut easy choice, and I believe An Na’s depictions of these moments as muddied and tied up was very intentional penned out. It was rather uneasy reading experience for me because of it--because Mina’s story is an all-too-familiar story I recognize--but I commend An Na’s depiction, for refusing to simplify these moments, for portraying Mina not as someone who necessarily does everything “right”, but as someone tied up in her circumstances and wrestling with every step, every decision she makes. In fact, the relationship between Mina and Jonathon was the most convincing and the most heartsearing for me, and it’s this relationship that I took the most away from out of this reading experience.
I liked how An Na depicted their friendship gone awry and twisted to the point beyond repair, and how she didn’t pull brakes to make their actions sympathetic. This relationship was not a healthy one, and An Na does not try to make it come across as so, which I appreciated. While sometimes I worry that An Na is letting Jonathon’s actions get off the hook too easily, it became clearer and clearer to me than the excuses he spouts are meant to be exactly that: excuses that don’t stand when their relationship is called into light. Their manipulations of one another was their ruination, and it worked so well for me because Mina’s immediate fear of Jonathon felt palpable in her immediate first person narration, and Jonathon’s clinging onto Mina and his frustration came across strongly through their scenes together, and all that combined with the complication of having grown up together, of their memories before things went wrong, it was all so immediate and arresting for me. Any relationship between Jonathon and Mina would have been beyond broken, and every scene they had was filled with tension, things said/unsaid, and I bought into their characterization and interactions so completely. It was mesmerizing, reading them. It was like a train wreck. I wanted to walk away, but I couldn’t. I just watched.
Another theme An Na dealt with, albeit with less (imo) success, is her duality on what others want versus what the self wants. In this story, Mina, who has always lived for others, is starting to confront the things she wants for herself. Usually when this kind of theme pops up we are often told that what the Self wants is far more important than the considerations of others, and it’s all very tidy and clean and simply portrayed. This is not a motif I personally buy, because this kind of motif does not acknowledge the points of the other side, how sometimes in doing things for others you feel happy 1) for making another person happy and 2) for being happy that you could give happiness to others. (ex. Don’t you feel happy when you think of the perfect gift for a person you care about, and then find out that your friend loved your gift? Doing things for others is not as insufferable or oppressive or harmful as “Western” fictional mediums like to depict it to be.) I do not believe that An Na intended for this to be the usual Self triumphing over Other’s Desires thing I’m used to seeing in these Asian-American stories, if the Suna ending is anything to go by, but I thought An Na’s development of this theme was inadequate and left her conclusion missing the impact it needed. In Mina’s case, the line between doing things for others for love and doing things for others is bringing the Self suffering is crossed, and this struggle to re-negotiate these boundaries are tentatively put up into play. The problem with the depiction of this theme was that one side was too strong over the other; the mother’s desires are almost caricatures of oppressive harm, and on the other side, Mina’s love for Suna was unconvincing. They’re too didactic, and it makes this theme come across as inadequate.
This, I think, was largely a byproduct of the depiction of the dynamics between the two sisters in general. For one thing Mina’s voice was just far more immediate and convincing than Suna’s, hence already one side of the relationship looks weaker in comparison. Suna’s chapters weren’t convincing in the slightest. The third person present tense had this dreamy quality that, while on rare occasions managed a lyricism that drew me (The part wherein Suna wore the dress? Beautiful, and probably the only truly empowering scene Suna had in the whole novel.), most of the times made Suna to seem like an infantile preteen stuck in her own head. She sounded simply way too young and naïve, and I find this childlike depiction of Suna and the connection between her disability leading to her mother’s rejection and her sister’s fierce protection disingenuous and terribly problematic. Also this dreamlike quality made her interactions with her mother and her sister never quite believable to the reader, which definitely hindered the reading experience. It is too bad that An Na was not quite able to depict a believable sisterly relationship between Mina and Suna, because so much of this book rests on the results of their sisterly bond, but none of the story’s climax and ultimate conclusion had the desirable effect it needed to pack its strongest punch. The caricature of the mother and almost non-existent father did nothing to help matters.
I also am ambivalent about Ysrael’s role in the story. The tension he supposedly brought between the two sisters felt overwrought to the point of ridiculousness, and I was never convinced of Ysrael as a person. For me, he never broke out of that love interest role he was designated and failed to come across as anything beyond a two-dimensional typical love interest boy in these YA contemporary romances. (You know, the whole perfect considerate boy walking in and changing the heroine’s life for the better.) I’m tired of having The Man being a catalyst for all of the heroine’s major changes in her life. Their whole shared music passion also failed to be believable for me as well, since their interest in music was portrayed vaguely at best and I’ve seen other YA books wherein two characters bond over music done much better than here. And also I just didn’t really buy the part wherein Ysrael supposedly opened Mina’s eyes to different future possibilities. The scene played out as if Mina never even heard of the possibility of doing what she wanted, which I found utterly unbelievable. I bought the ties between Ysrael and Suna even less. (Basically, comparing Ysrael's scar to Suna's hearing aid just did not fly for me, and was a very superficial tie at best. Also they had no romantic tension whatsoever.) Finally, I thought that in spending all that time developing a connection between Ysrael and Mina, the development of Mina and Suna’s relationship suffered because of it, focusing too much on the love triangle dynamic instead of the sisterly bond. It would have been fine if An Na intended the novel to be primarily about the budding romance, but it’s clear to me from its premise and execution that the family was and should have been the dominating storyline. I mean, I did like some scenes with Ysrael in it, (the kiss scene was simply beautiful) and certainly it’s nice to have at least one healthy relationship depicted in a novel (because Mina’s relationship with everyone else in this novel – Jonathon, Suna, Uhmma – were so incredibly dysfunctional) but this subplot just didn’t intertwine convincingly into the main story.
The Verdict: Reading this book wasn’t an easy experience for the subject matters, but also because I found the structure/pacing/unfolding chain of events unfortunately uneven as well. I enjoyed the premise, but the execution, the imbalanced two person narrations and the abrupt ending took away from what could have been a brilliant novel. I was drawn to many elements of this novel, like the exploration of the Model Minority Myth here, and it’s good to see a novel with inter-POC romance and POC characters with a disability as well. The scarcity of inter-POC romance and disabled POC characters in YA fiction (and I suspect across all genres/age categories) is disappointing enough to make these aspects of Wait for Me to stand out. There are all types of people from all walks of life interacting with each other: the fact that these books are rarely told sends a sublime signal that their stories don’t matter/aren’t worth telling, and that is wrong. We should, and can do better. I also suspect I would have had fewer problems with Suna and her characterization as childish if only we had a variety of differently abled characters presented in Fiction, but this prevalence of infantilizing disabled characters rubs me in all the wrong places and the fact that Suna fits and continues this trend is disheartening. Not my favourite of reads, but as I said in the beginning, above all else this novel haunted me, the scenes between Mina and Jonathon arrested me, and despite my scruples, I definitely will remember the name of this novel long into the future.
Enjoyment: N/A - I didn’t enjoy myself reading this novel, but I couldn’t walk away from or stop reading this novel for the life of me. Make of that what you will.
Title and Cover Discussion: You know, this title does fit, but I don’t like the message it sends? Also I thought the cover was hideous, fade into the background type. I could never notice this book passing by it on the shelves. In fact, I have by passed this novel multiple times in the library.
Aside: Does anyone else find An Na's romanization of Korean strange? I mean, I'm not nitpicking the way she spells out the words into English letters since I'm not the most familiar with the romanization systems for the Korean language. I just find her insertion of a hyphen in between every syllable jarring. It makes reading the romanized Korean sound stilted and stiff, and Korean doesn't really sound like that, imo. I'm speaking as a person who doesn't speak Korean personally and mostly hears the language through friends or kdramas or just people talking in public areas, FYI. (Opinions of Korean speakers are welcome.)