The relationship between a mother and daughter can be harrowing. It holds within its lifeline the expectations and assertions of all the mothers that have come before and all the children that will come after. The balance of such a connection shifts with age, vocation, and relationship status. It is not a thing to take lightly. Beneath Yi Shun Lai’s humor, expectations cut deep for both the mother and daughter in her debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu.
The main character, Marty, spins out her tale like a modern-day Virginia Woolf, her stream of consciousness forcing the reader to follow her narrowing perspective through all the emotional plot twists. On the outside, this is a tale of a young professional in New York working a mundane job in the hopes of one day operating her own costuming shop. And yet, Marty fails spectacularly over and over again at life: vomiting on clients, sabotaging friendships and romances, and losing the one job that could fund her dream. It reads like a sitcom, laughable and fast, but with a darker undercurrent. She is an emotionally broken young woman trying to build up her own psyche while she builds a career.
Marty’s mother brings additional weight and darkness to the story. She places the same heavy expectations of success on her daughter that she herself felt as a child growing up in Taiwan. She twists those expectations deeper, like a knife, with each of Marty’s failures. She is the matriarch, the caretaker, the manipulator, the abuser. She is the one on whom all plots hinge. And her lines are cutting:
“Get inside. You’re so ugly today I can’t stand to think the neighbors might see.”
“They don’t want you, you know. They want blonde, they want white, they want Marilyn, they want Elizabeth Taylor. They won’t want you.”
“You give it away, like the whore you are, and you can’t even make them stay by giving it away.”
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching aspect of the novel is watching Marty attempt to take such gibes in stride. The dichotomy between the two implicates more than just mother and daughter, but also the culture of the East and West, and the world’s evolving expectations of women.
Marty’s costuming job, when seen from this light, makes perfect sense. The act of “giv[ing] people the skin they [need] to become someone else, if even just for one night of pretending,” is Marty’s wish for herself as well. Who would want to be the daughter of the woman who made you eat food off the floor “like the dog [you were]”? Who would want to live under that kind of abuse? The dramatic irony of Marty’s inability to see her own career aspirations for what they are draws the reader close to her, as a surrogate mother or sister who wishes to protect.
And yet, Lai forces the reader to feel for the mother too, the broken one who lost herself somewhere between immigration, divorce, and old age. Marty is on a journey to save herself, but in it, she may also save her mother.
Lai’s fragmented style forces the reader to move quickly through scenes from New York to Las Vegas to Taiwan. As Marty attempts to piece together a life and an identity separate from her mother, Lai gives the audience a cultural perspective on a young woman of two worlds with two histories with which to make peace. She pays homage to her own Taiwanese heritage with commentary on cuisine, idioms, and a culture that values family and one’s duty to it, while also acknowledging the freedom that anonymity in a city like New York can bring.
Rather than one culminating crisis point, this novel is a series of many. In the aftermath of one such crisis, Marty says, “…maybe I should start paying attention to who I want to be, instead of who I think she wants me to be. Because maybe Mama is bat-shit broken.” Revelations like these come in small doses, which, the reader hopes, will add up to a better life. This hope keeps the story moving past heartbreak and abuse and insecurity. Marty’s fierce optimism rises to the top.
As the nonfiction editor for the Tahoma Literary Review and a transplant herself, from Taiwan to Southern California, Yi Shun Lai brings her knowledge of old-world tradition to a modern landscape. She picks at the knot of the mother-daughter relationship in a context of clashing cultures with a radical style that calls together a universal audience. In Not a Self-Help Book, Lai creates a new kind of hero for the newest generation of readers.