Kelly Loy Gilbert (Conviction, 2015) has written a perceptive and subtle realistic novel, set in the Asian American community of Cupertino in Silicon Valley, a setting which allows her to explore not just what it means to be second generation Asian American but also other identities within that of economic status, immigration status, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.
Two deaths cast a shadow over senior Danny Cheng: those of his sister who died before he was born and Sandra, a friend who committed suicide last year. But his life now seems to be on an upswing: he has been accepted with a full scholarship at his dream school, RISD, and has some sketches on display in a gallery. But when he finds a box of papers hidden away in his father’s office, he opens the proverbial Pandora’s box.
Narrator Danny is a very much a teen – he can be selfish, impulsive, and makes some poor choices. He sees the world through art and often comments on how he would approach a drawing of a moment and what he would want to capture, and his touchstone, and the leitmotif of the novel, is the centrality of human connection and entanglement. There is a minor dual narrative that’s written in the second person, addressed to his sister which fills out the family history.
The author draws a nuanced portrait of the largely Asian student body at Monta Vista public high school (a school which she actually attended): “We were all tired and stressed out all the time, all of us worried we’d never be good enough, many of us explicitly told we weren’t good enough….We all felt it, the relentless crush of expectation, the fear of not measuring up….”
Danny’s relationship with his parents is authentically complicated and beautifully drawn. They are immigrants, much lower on the socio-economic scale than most of the other families at the school, and still bring their customs and attitudes from China. Though they are fiercely proud of their son and his achievements, they are torn between two cultures and have guilt and secrecy etched into them. The other significant figures in Danny’s life are his friends, Harry and Regina, and his friendships with them are also fractured and challenging with clandestine depths.
As Danny pursues the truth, doubting his quest even as he won’t drop it, the past of his family falls into place and, against the odds but entirely organically, there is a feeling of hope and resolution.
Though set in a very specific community, the author has created characters and themes that will resonate with all American teens.