Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.
But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.
There is so much that is wonderful about this book. The incredibly depicted settings of both Chinatown and ballroom dancing. The finely nuanced and richly complicated relationships. The new adult struggles of finding and being true to yourself while still relating to your family of birth. You don’t have to be first-generation American to relate to Charlie’s struggles to reconcile her childhood world with the world she knows now. In some ways I found this to be a Chinese-American version of Dirty Dancing, and that’s a big complement since Dirty Dancing is one of my favorite movies. I also particularly enjoyed seeing a single father realistically deal with his two daughters. He sometimes does wonderfully and sometimes fails them, and their fights are realistic and full of honesty.
If you’re curious about the audiobook version, Angela Lin does an incredible job. Every single character has their own voice and her accents are full of nothing but realism and respect. It was like a well-produced radio program.The praise this book is getting is well-deserved, and if you want to immerse yourself in Chinatown, dance, and new adult issues, you don’t even need to read my review further. Just go get yourself a copy. But I do need to talk about what didn’t work for me.
Charlie is dyslexic, and her father never allowed her school to officially diagnose and treat her, which led her to have poor grades and struggle with many typical entry level white collar jobs such as being an administrative assistant. Lisa in contrast is an excellent student who works after school at their uncle’s Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic. Partway through the book, Lisa starts to have nightmares and wet the bed. She’s also been selected to apply for entry and scholarship to a highly selective private school, though, so Charlie thinks it’s probably related to that. I think the vast majority of readers will be able to quickly figure out that Lisa is being molested at the clinic. There are just way too many hints. Lisa doesn’t want to go to the clinic anymore after being good-natured about it. She starts getting jealous of Charlie whereas before she only wished for good things for her sister. And honestly bed wetting and nightmares are extremely typical symptoms of molestation.
But I don’t dislike this plot because of how obvious it was to me. I also fully acknowledge these terrible things can and do happen in otherwise average families, and I’m not against these stories being told. However, I do think it was a poor fit for the tone otherwise of the book. It felt like the idea was that there wouldn’t be enough conflict between Charlie and her family without this extra problem. Like Charlie wouldn’t have been at all worried about her sister or about leaving her family behind somehow without this other problem. I think that’s underestimating Charlie and underestimating how hard it can be to grow and change and become different from your family of origin. The rest of the book is so full of beauty and energy, whether it’s in Chinatown or in the ballroom dance rooms. Then this plot comes in and it just feels like it doesn’t belong. While I feel incredible empathy for people in Lisa’s situation, I came to resent her presence in the story because she felt kind of like olives being stuffed into a delicious lasagna. It’s not that olives are bad; it’s just that they don’t belong. I think that these were really two separate stories, and they should have been told separately.
In spite of these feelings about the dual plots, I still really enjoyed the read and would happily read another book by Kwok in the future. I also think this is a great example of a new adult read that’s mostly about the emotional experiences of your early 20s. Recommended to anyone looking to get immersed in Chinatown and ballroom.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Something Spectacular: The True Story of One Rockette’s Battle with Bulimia by Greta Gleissner (Audiobook narrated by Dina Pearlman)
Greta Gleissner finally achieved her lifelong dream of making a living just from her professional dancing. She landed the prestigious job of being a Rockette in the New York City show. She hoped that this newfound stability and prestige would cure her of her bulimia. What was there to binge and purge about when she was living her dream? But her eating disorder she’d had since a young age won’t just disappear because of her newfound success. Soon, her bulimia is putting her job–and her life–at risk.
I was immediately intrigued by the elements of this eating disorder memoir that make it different from the, sadly, so many others that exist. Greta’s eating disorder peaks in her 20s, not her teens. She was a Rockette, and she’s a lesbian. An eating disorder memoir about someone in their 20s in the dance industry who is also queer was very appealing to me. What I found was a memoir that gives insight to having an eating disorder, the impact of homophobia, and an inside look at the professional dance world told in a non-linear, honest, and engaging manner.
Greta tells her memoir in the framework of a play. There are scenes, acts, overtures, etc… This lets her address the story in a non-linear way that still makes sense. The overture, for instance, shows a dramatic moment when her eating disorder was at full tilt and destroying her life. Then she backs up to the few months before she became a Rockette. The time of auditioning then being a Rockette is interspersed with flashbacks to help us better understand her life. Finally, she enters an inpatient clinic, where we get flashbacks in the context of her therapy. It’s a creative storytelling technique that brings a freshness to her memoir.
Honesty without cruelty to herself or others is a key part of her narrative voice. Greta is straightforward, sometimes grotesquely so, about her bulimia and what it does to her. The eating disorder is not glamorized. Greta takes us down into the nitty-gritty of the illness. In fact, it’s the first bulimia memoir I’ve read that was so vivid and straightforward in its depictions of what the illness is and what it does. In some ways, it made me see bulimia as a bit of a mix between an addiction and body image issues. Greta was able to show both how something that was helping you cope can spiral out of control, as well as how poor self-esteem and body image led her to purging her food.
Greta also is unafraid to tell us about what goes on inside her own mind, and where she sees herself as having mistreated people in the past. I never doubted her honesty. Similarly, although Greta’s parents definitely did some things wrong in how they raised her, Greta strives to both acknowledge the wounds and accept her parents as flawed and wounded in their own ways. You can hear her recovery in how she talks about both them and her childhood. She has clearly done the work to heal past wounds.
The memoir honestly made me grateful the dancing I did as a child never went the professional route. It’s disturbing how pervasive body policing and addictions in general are in the dance world, at least as depicted by Greta. Similarly, it eloquently demonstrates how parents’ issues get passed down to the children, and sometimes even exacerbated. Greta’s mother was a non-professional dancer who was constantly dieting. Greta also loved dancing but her mother’s body image issues got passed down to her as well. Food was never just food in her household.
One shortcoming of the memoir is that Greta never fully addresses her internalized homophobia or how she ultimately overcomes it and marries her wife. The book stops rather abruptly when Greta is leaving the halfway house she lived in right after her time in the inpatient clinic. There is an epilogue where she briefly touches on the time after the halfway house, mentions relapse, and states that she ultimately overcame her internalized homophobia and met her now wife. However, for the duration of her time in the clinic and the halfway house, she herself admits she wasn’t yet ready to address her sexuality or deal with her internalized homophobia. It was clear to me reading the book that at least part of her self-hatred that led to her bulimia was due to her issues with her sexuality. Leaving out how she dealt with that and healed felt like leaving out a huge chunk of the story I was very interested in. Perhaps it’s just too painful of a topic for her to discuss, but it did feel as if the memoir gave glimpses and teasers of it, discussing how she would only make out with women when very drunk for instance, but then the issue is never fully addressed in the memoir.
Similarly, leaving out the time after the halfway house was disappointing. I wanted to see her finish overcoming and succeeding. I wanted to hear the honesty of her relapses that she admits she had and how she overcome that. I wanted to hear about her dating and meeting her wife and embracing her sexuality. Hearing about the growth and strength past the initial part in the clinic and halfway house is just as interesting and engaging as and more inspiring than her darker times. I wish she had told that part of the story too.
The audiobook narrator, Dina Pearlman, was a great choice for the memoir. Her voice reads as gritty feminine, which is perfect for the story. She also handles some of the asides and internal diatribes present in mental illness memoirs with great finesse.
Overall, this is a unique entry in the eating disorder memoir canon. It gives the nitty gritty details of bulimia from the perspective of a lesbian suffering from homophobia within the framework of the dance world. Those who might be triggered should be aware that specific height and weight numbers are given, as well as details on binge foods and purging episodes. It also, unfortunately, doesn’t fully address how the author healed from the wounds of homophobia. However, her voice as a queer person is definitely present in the memoir. Recommended to those with an interest in bulimia in adults, in the dance world, or among GLBTQ people.
4 out of 5 stars