Author: Gloria Chao
Genre: YA, contemporary
Release Date: February 6th, 2018
Format: print ARC
Synopsis: 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?
This book was like one of those picture-perfect recipes that appear in your Pinterest or Facebook feed: the ingredients all look delicious, it seems so easy to make, and the final product is positively gorgeous. But when you decide to make it for yourself, the ingredients don’t mix together very well and the end product is no where near as good as you thought it would be. American Panda seemed to have all the right elements for a perfect contemporary, yet none of it blended very well together.
That description is a bit harsh, but it’s the best way I can convey what I experienced with this book. It had so much potential! I was so excited! It has a Taiwanese American protagonist, with a nerdy personality and a disagreeable family; a fun college setting; and of course, a swoon-worthy love interest. Despite all this though, I really could not bring myself to enjoy this book.
The author seems to create a mix of genres—just like the mix of “ingredients”— and they did not fit well together. The narrative dramatically shifts tone from a sweet, fluffy contemporary to an incredibly deep, heartbreaking story of (for lack of a better description) an emotionally abused girl. The book didn’t seem like it knew which it wanted to be, and it left me feeling angry and stressed out during scenes where my heart was supposed to be soaring with butterflies. I felt like I was on a roller-coaster, but the kind where I couldn’t wait to be let off.
Mei’s family is hard to read about at times. They uphold many Taiwanese and Chinese traditions regarding gender roles and marriage that are extremely harmful, not only to Mei but to the family as a whole. The author does a good job of explaining why these traditions are still being upheld, and weaves an inspiring story regarding the cycles of abuse that allow these ideals to be instilled across generations. I really appreciated that perspective, and found it to be enlightening.
However, the reasoning behind the actions that Mei’s family took did not help to curb the absolute hatred I felt for a few of the characters. I suppose it’s commendable that the author was able to gain such a visceral reaction from me, but it did keep me from enjoying the read. Many times I had to set down the book and walk away before I could continue on.
The romance didn’t help much, either. I found it to be very mediocre. I liked Darren’s character, and the way he helped keep Mei grounded in all her family’s dysfunction. But the romance is not a huge part of the book, and it airs on the side of insta-love.
An aspect of this book that others may find enjoyable is the humor. I’m probably in the minority when I say this, but I didn’t think the book was funny so much as cringe-inducing. If you liked Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, I think you’re much more likely to enjoy American Panda than I did. It carries that same awkward, bathroom-level humor that Jesse Andrew’s books often do. I personally don’t care for it.
Finally, the last thing that I found off-putting is the fact that the book takes place at MIT, an Ivy League level school, and Mei is seen attending class only once—where all she does is sleep! Maybe it’s the AP student in me coming out, but I know that if I were at MIT my life would be consumed by school and homework. MIT acts as an aesthetic backdrop, but doesn’t add much to Mei’s development or her story.
Now that I’ve covered most of the negative, there were a few things that I really liked! Mei’s relationship with her mother is incredibly well-developed, we get to see her mom change, grow, and make sacrifices. Seeing the two learn to compromise and listen to each other was definitely my favorite part of the book.
I also really enjoyed how Mei and Xing (her older brother) navigate their way back to being siblings after their parents left them estranged. We don’t often get to see brother/sister relationships in YA literature, and I loved that!
The most important and impactful aspect of this novel, however, is clearly the ownvoices element it carries. Even though I had my own issues with it, I can’t deny the fact that Gloria Chao gives a genuine, heartfelt, and thorough look at what it’s like to be a first-generation Taiwanese American. I can’t speak for the representation myself, but I don’t doubt that many kids will gain an invaluable message by seeing themselves in Mei’s character. For that reason, though I wouldn’t usually do this with books below three stars, I will definitely be supporting this book in any honest way that I can! It’s an important novel, and one that needs to be shared with the world.
Have you read American Panda? Do you plan to? What are some of your favorite ownvoices stories?
Thanks so much to Simon Teen for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!