In a recent interview, author Christina Chiu emphasized that her debut novel, Beauty, is a work of fiction. Chiu, a winner of the James Alan McPherson Award judged by Gish Jen, also said the book sprouted from a seed of truth. “About ten years ago, my grandmother passed away and the funeral was so life-changing for me that I knew I would end up writing about it. I didn’t know how.” Chiu eventually gave the real life funeral scene in the novel to the protagonist’s father, but what’s perhaps more interesting in life informing art, is that the novel ends when the protagonist herself is a grandmother. Its episodic structure deftly supports its narrative scope.
Beauty is the story of Amy Wong, a Chinese American woman who battles racism, objectification by violent men, and the tough expectations of a hyper-vigilant mother, as she navigates the cutthroat world of New York fashion. The book’s early chapters shine with swift pacing that creates a propulsive vibe true to scenester party culture:
At the top of the spiral staircase, I pause at what feels like the top of the world. My mind and every cell in my body wakes up. The world brightens. The invisible pack shackled to my back falls away. The party pulses; I’m part of it. The warm elixir spreads through me.
Juxtapose this pacing with the book’s midsection when Wong becomes a mother herself and Chiu downshifts to portray an internal dulling of sorts in her main character, a cruising speed slower than that of Wong’s art school youth. Wong begins to experience firsthand the grinding work her mother endured while raising two daughters without much help:
My mind swarms with a mishmash of random, nagging thoughts. Call Georgie about Ma’s birthday gift. Add “sugar” to the shopping list. Ask that new mom in the playgroup for the name of her pediatric allergist. Call the tree company to test the towering oak hovering directly above Alex’s bedroom.
It’s these moments of interiority and the telling portrayal of the ever-changing contents of the protagonist’s mind over several decades that power the novel. If the fashion industry is difficult for Wong, motherhood is nearly impossible.
What’s refreshing about the intergenerational motherhood narrative here is its eschewing of stereotypes. Wong’s biological son is an albatross, but later in the book she becomes a stepmother and that relationship is loving in a way that transforms her. The wicked stepmother trope is turned on its ear and the step-son refreshingly loves his mother-by-marriage. And when Wong’s biological son leaves for college, she voices a kind of relief that’s taboo according to the cult of good motherhood. While other moms in the book perform pre–empty nest woes as a kind of virtue signaling, Chiu’s protagonist isn’t having it:
All I can say is ‘finally,’ I blurt, rolling my eyes. Maybe my voice carries a little too loudly; the entire street seems to go silent. ‘Alex’s bags are packed and waiting by the door.’ She [another mother] chuckles and punches me softly on the arm. ‘You don’t mean that.’
She does mean it, but the book’s titular beauty stems partly from the protagonist’s ability to change her mind over time, and sometimes change it back again. And speaking of time, the way in which Chiu handles the book’s sprawling scope is an accomplishment. Perhaps because Chiu’s first book was a short story collection, she knows how to create moving sections that in some cases could stand alone as compelling stories. In order to make the parts form a whole, she compresses time and makes big temporal leaps, a shrewd structural move that allows for eight decades to exist in less than three hundred pages. But it’s neither page-count nor linguistic economy that the author is after when she omits several years and hits fast forward on events. Chiu, in the aforementioned interview, talked about a near-death experience after which she asked herself what moments in a person’s life would be worth committing to paper. With this in mind, she set about crafting a series of what she calls karmic moments, by which she means meaningful exchanges and transformative experiences curated from a character’s long life. For the reader, the result is rich and lustrous, a story full of complex scenes that doesn’t bog itself down in unnecessary minutiae. Chiu makes great use of the episodic storytelling mode.
The author’s sartorial research adds fun and flair to a book that often deals with difficult relationships and heavy subjects. Chiu knows her hemlines and cuts, and supplies vivacious descriptions of pieces by Givenchy, Chanel, and more. It’s no wonder Chiu became a shoe designer while writing Beauty. The book could be read as an encyclopedia for the fashion-forward. And if fashion isn’t your jam, you might pick up the book for the unabashed way in which Chiu writes sex scenes. Mothers, daughters, or anyone who’s been placed in similar roles, will find in the book an examination of a mother-daughter bond that spans more than a century and considers the ways in which ancestry impacts maternal instincts.
Marriage and motherhood are messy in Beauty, which is a nice example of that old saw about fiction being a lie that tells the truth: that there is no one way to be a woman, wife, mother or grandmother is its beautiful takeaway.