I received this book for free from Simon Pulse in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.American Panda by Gloria Chao
Published by Simon Pulse on February 6th, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, YA
Source: Simon Pulse
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An incisive, laugh-out-loud contemporary debut about a Taiwanese-American teen whose parents want her to be a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her squeamishness with germs and crush on a Japanese classmate.
At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents' master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.
With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can't bring herself to tell them the truth--that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.
But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?
American Panda was one of my most anticipated novels of 2018 so it is truly unfortunate that I did not, in fact, love it. I do want to start off by saying that I don’t intend to discourage anyone from reading the book in this review, just convey my experience with it. We are at a point in time where even though there is a large influx in diverse books, we still don’t have nearly enough. Stats show that the number of diverse books published by diverse authors every year is so dismal. I hope that this book will allow many many many kids to see themselves reflected in the story and that they will be able to cherish it.
That said, my biggest issue with the book is not with the story or the characters really. It is with the writing. Perhaps my experience was impacted by the fact that I did not read a finished copy. Changes are always being made b/w arc versions and finished versions but the writing definitely felt choppy throughout as opposed to just in specific parts.
I liked Mei and I liked the people she met but none of the characters I was introduced to really came to life for me. I felt like I was reading stories about cardboard cutouts. There was depth to them on paper but that depth didn’t really translate itself across the span of the story. The writing was chock full of moments where we are told things but not really shown them.
I assumed the romance would also be more central to the story, which in some ways it was but it really wasn’t? Does that even make sense? There is nothing wrong with the romance being central or not being central but the way it was written just didn’t work. The romance looked really good on paper but not so much in practice. The characters had no chemistry and I am not even entirely sure how they ended up together.
The book centered Mei’s narrative above all which was nice and appreciated. We get to see her come of age and navigate her complicated relationship with her conservative parents. We also get to see her navigate her culture and what her Taiwanese-American identity means. All of these things were so great and even as I struggled to truly enjoy the novel, I still found things I could relate to so I am sure so many teens and other readers will as well.
I do feel obligated to warn that there are undertones of internalized racism in Mei’s character that aren’t really addressed. Of course, overcoming internalized racism isn’t easy so it is not surprising that everything isn’t automatically okay by the end of the book, but it is still painful to read about if you’ve had those experiences. It was painful for me because I am still working on overcoming my own internalized racism from years of microaggressions. It might not be an issue for some people but because of my own experiences, it kind of was for me.
That being said, there is humor to be had and some feel-good moments to be had. Unfortunately, I just ended up not clicking with the book. It is not a terrible book by any means and I know I am 100% the black sheep in how I felt about the book. You have no idea though how much I wanted to like this book as someone who also experiences diaspora AND started college at 17. Sometimes, things are just not meant to be though and I hope that other people will be able to find pleasure and goodness in American Panda.
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