Friday, September 18, 2020

Review - The Way You Make Me Feel

Original Title: The Way You Make Me Feel
Author: Maurene Goo
Published: May 8th, 2018

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)


Wow. I mean… wow. I don’t know what I was expecting from this book, but it was definitely not this. I thought it would only be a cute, fluffy book about a summer romance and food, and instead, I found a novel that is surprisingly deep on the psychological aspect, tackling complex issues, with realistic, relatable characters, and a plot that is both believable, and incredibly well written. You don’t find this often, and, in my experience, much less in YA.

I read reviews on this book saying that it was impossible for some people to finish it, due to the totally hateable heroine, and how hard it was to tolerate her. And I agree, because Clara Shin is a selfish girl who can’t take anything seriously, and actually puts effort on ruining things that are important for others, just for the sake of it. Which is basically the beginning of the novel, as she takes a prank a little too far, almost setting her school on fire, and fighting with Rose Carver, a girl that is her complete opposite. I mean, from the moment we meet her, we can tell Clara is not a good person, and even more after she tells us that, after Rose caught her smoking once, and told on her, she has dedicated a lot of time and energy to ruin everything that was important to her. And it’s not just that, but the fact that she knows she creates chaos, and yet, doesn’t actually care about being a better person.

And let me say, of course we do not like Clara! That’s pretty much the point. She’s deeply flawed, but all those shortcomings and negative traits have roots, and the plot of the novel is, precisely, finding them out. I’m no expert in psychology, but I can tell when someone needs therapy as soon as they can get it, and that is the case with her. Her rebellious, insolent attitude, the things she says and does, go far deeper than just her being a good or bad person, as I read them as both a vulnerable girl trying to get attention from adults, and at the same time, as a self-protection mechanism, in which not caring means less hurt when facing loss. And those are both natural responses to a life in which very little is solid, with an absent mother, and a father figure that is more of a friend to her than a parent.

At one point, she tells Rose:

The smoking. It was something I could control.

And I think, is there any clearer way to tell that someone needs therapy, and that is not just about the smoking itself, but an attitude rooted in deep-seeded issues? Which leads me to talk about Clara’s parents. Even when in the previous book by the same author, I Believe in a Thing Called Love, Desi Lee and her dad have a lovely father-daughter relationship, loving and supporting each other after their loss, in this book, the bond between Clara and her dad takes the center of the stage. At first, I thought Adrian Shin was a total joke, that he only grounded her and forced her to work on his food truck because he saw Rose’s parents being… well, parents, and he didn’t want to look bad in front of them, instead of doing it because he thought Clara deserved it, or had gone way too far this time. But then, as I read on, I was able to understand him better. Clara is not exactly the easiest girl to parent, as she is strong-willed, and often disrespects her dad, calling him a jerk, and even using his mental disorder against him, making me want to slap her all the way to Korea. But my point is that, while Clara’s mother is little else than a guest star in her life, her dad is there for better or worse, no matter what, struggling to make sure she lacks nothing, and overall, figuring out how to be a father along the way, as Clara is the result of an unplanned pregnancy when they were only eighteen years-old. Of course he’s gonna make mistakes!

And that’s basically the difference with Clara’s mother. As we read, we hate Clara, when in fact, we should be hating her mom. She’s the truly bad person here, because both her and Adrian had their own dreams, but Adrian was the only one who truly assumed the responsibility of their actions, and put them on hold, to take care of their daughter, while Juliana practically abandoned young Clara, to go and live her dream life. It can’t get more realistic than that, and with a selfish mother who is never there, and a father who can’t discipline her because he doesn’t know how, no wonder Clara is out of control. And it’s amazingly well written.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m all about following your dreams, and living your best life, but to the point of ditching the responsibility of a child to prioritize social media followers, is nothing short of selfish, in one of its worst versions. Clara and her mom don’t have a very intimate relationship, as Juliana never sets time apart to devote exclusively to her, always mixing her with work, sharing everything with a thousand strangers online, with whom she is closer than with her own daughter. And, even worse, all her motherly attitudes over the years never came naturally to her, but were the result of Adrian prompting her to remember important dates and events on Clara’s life, so she wouldn’t miss them. Even the promised vacation together in Tulum, is something to Story on Instagram, instead of the purely mother-daughter time Clara needs. I mean, she suddenly ran away from L. A. in distress to find her, and her mother says she should have told her so she could have “sent a car” to the airport instead of picking her up herself! This seems small but hits hard, so I just have to mention it. It’s so sad! Everything about Juliana Choi says that Clara isn’t a priority in her life. Plus, her hypocrisy during the interview in Tulum is unbelievable! As she is praised for balancing her busy life with motherhood, she says she had Clara when she was very young, and then:

But, with Clara’s dad’s support, I was able to strike out on my own.

Support’? She just calls ‘support’ to the fact that Adrian had to be a single parent for both of them, and did everything for Clara so she didn’t have to? Oh my God! I hate her. I want to punch her, because, while she may have given birth to Clara, it was Adrian who was the real parent there, the one who raised her, and made all the sacrifices needed to give her a good life, in a country that wasn’t his own, no less. So, it’s not surprising that Clara lives in the moment, doesn’t take anything seriously, doesn’t make long-term plans, nor has any meaningful relationships in her life. It’s the example she has always seen. And if you think about it, it’s terrible.

So, in short, patience is key with this book, because although Clara is highly unlikeable, the point of the plot actually is going with her on her journey of self-discovery and self-improvement, finding her own self in the midst of chaos, and giving her life a new meaning. Appreciating her transformation is what gives the story its depth.

As for the rest of the characters, save Clara’s friends, Felix and Patrick, all the relevant ones to the plot are not just background noise (something that happens more often than not in YA novels), and they all have an important story to tell. Like Rose Carver, a character I liked very much. She is everything Clara is not, and for me, she was the most relatable person in the entire book. For one, her description of how anxiety feels like is the most accurate I’ve ever read, and through their forced proximity, Clara gets to know her for herself, instead of seeing her through the lens of the things she saw her doing in school. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the point of writing about friendship, that many authors miss, choosing to write about cat fights, slut-shaming, and girl-hating. Because, although at first Rose and Clara were sworn enemies, the fact that they weren’t trying to get to like each other made them be their authentic selves, and so, they realized that the other was not that bad, after all. Even when they don’t seem to have a lot in common, you see how they slowly become better as individuals when they are together, taking things from each other, which is the point of any good relationship. As their bond grows, Rose learns to relax and have more fun, and Clara becomes more responsible, truly caring about others, and stops taking everything as a joke. Their lost summer wasn’t so lost after all, and they send the very good message that people can get along and settle their differences, in despite of prejudice.

The only thing I didn’t particularly loved about this book was the romance part. Not because of Hamlet, though. He is a very nice, gentlemanlike guy, and genuinely likes Clara. The way he asked her out was the sweetest thing ever, all dressed up and with flowers, and as their bond grew, I was fascinated with how much respect Hamlet had towards her. He never forced to do anything, and always had her well-being in mind. I just didn’t quite like that, only after a couple of dates, he already could instantly notice that something was off with her. It felt too soon. Like, you could expect that attitude from her dad, because he knows her since birth, but Hamlet has only known her for a couple of weeks, she flinches, and he already knows something is wrong. That doesn’t quite work for me. However, I liked that Maurene Goo wrote this couple with zero drama and unnecessary, tacky horniness, and although Clara feels all the time that she’s not good enough for Hamlet, and that she doesn’t deserve him (which is kind of true), I liked how the bond with him helped her get away from the shallow, unfulfilling relationships she had had before him.

I think is beautiful how the author did the whole “Love has a way of finding you” thing the book cover mentions. Because finding love, in Clara’s case, didn’t mean just finding a boyfriend, but actually, getting to love and take care of herself, making true friends, and realizing how much her father loves her, through noticing the many things he did for her, even when she wasn’t aware of them. The fact that things have a bad start doesn’t mean that they can’t lead to something good. That little, tight-knit family that grew around the KoBra, where everyone had something to say and became an inseparable part of each other’s life, is the best aspect of this book, because Clara was finally able to find people worth keeping in her life, that were worried when she disappeared, and actually tried to find her when she put distance between them (unlike her mother).

So, to sum up, this book was a beautiful surprise, and I liked it very much. I’m not usually a contemporary reader, but I’m happy I gave this story a chance. It sends a wonderful message, while it also is a great display of diversity, tackling issues such as family, parenting, immigration, friendship, cultural differences, and even mental health, all wrapped up in a context of hard work, not just on the food truck, but in every area of life.

I highly recommend it!


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