Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu
By Yi Shun Lai
Shade Mountain Press: May 6, 2016
$18.95, 204 pages
Yi Shun Lai’s debut novel is an auspicious beginning to her writing career. What at first appears to be a lighthearted modern comedy of manners set in New York City turns out to be something much more interesting and rewarding.
Marty Wu is a character worth getting to know. She is a bright but socially awkward young advertising rep with Retirees’ Review (think AARP Magazine), and a compulsive reader of self-help manuals like The Language of Paying Attention to YOU. She’s coming off a relationship with her supercilious British boss, Stafford (he of the “plummy vowels…all Eton and right side of the tracks”), has developed a nervous interest in a thoroughly decent co-worker named Chris, and can’t seem to do anything right. She is a Taiwanese-American Bridget Jones, complex, sympathetic, and charming in spite of her many flaws and failings.
Marty is beset by a dragon lady of a mother, for whom nothing Marty does is good enough. She views Marty’s life through remarkably self-absorbed eyes. While the character of Mama treads awfully close to stereotype in the early going, like the novel itself, there is much more to her than meets the eye.
In the first section of the book, we follow Marty through several scenes featuring her struggles in the face of omnipresent stress, much of it caused by her own neuroses. A disastrous faux pas with a major advertising client leads to her immediate termination, which serves as the catalyst for much-needed changes in her life. Desperate and unmoored from her Manhattan lifestyle, she decides to join her mother on a trip “home” to Taiwan, a place as foreign to Marty as it would be to most young Americans.
The core of the book is set in her family’s ancestral town, where everyone is connected by family, friendship, or simple proximity, and there are few secrets. Her aunts, uncles, and cousins welcome her warmly, and she is revived by spending time with her older brother, Ken, who was raised by her aunt for reasons that remain mysterious.
Taiwan offers Marty a second chance at her life, a blank slate on which to sketch out possible paths to a better (or at least different) future. To buy time to sort out her emotional life and career options, she takes on a job as an ESL teacher at the local high school, where she connects with her enthusiastic, America-obsessed young charges. Not surprisingly, she learns as much from them about Taiwanese culture and tradition as she teaches them about English and western culture. She finds herself returning to her dream of being a costume designer with a little shop in Brooklyn. Could making this dream come true be more feasible in Taiwan?
But just as the sun appears to be coming out, thunderstorms move in suddenly. Her brother, a talented artist, finds himself in an unexpectedly fraught situation. Her mother’s behavior becomes increasingly unpredictable and erratic, with the only constant her insulting comments, mean-spirited criticism, and frequent bad-mouthing of Marty to family and friends (even in Marty’s presence). What is behind her mother’s perplexing personality and behavior? Why did she give up Ken and leave him behind when she emigrated to the U.S.? What should Marty do with herself? Should she try to rebuild her life in Taiwan or return to her beloved Manhattan, supposed land of opportunity and home to her best friend Jody and potential boyfriend Chris?
Lai puts us deep in Marty’s head and heart as she feels herself being pushed and pulled in several directions. Straddling two cultures offers Marty several benefits, but they come with knotted strings attached. As Marty discovers the truth of her mother’s early life and the cause of the current complications, Not a Self-Help Book becomes a surprisingly dark, even harrowing, journey to the heart of a broken family beset by secrets. Marty slowly transcends her neurotic self-absorption and reliance on glib pseudo-psychology books to realize that her past, present, and future are closely connected to the life of her mother and some of her family members.
The title Not a Self-Help Book suggests a lighthearted or romantic “chick lit” novel. While the book is often very funny (especially early on, when Lai displays both verbal wit and a gift for writing physical comedy bits), I can’t help but think that the subtitle, The Misadventures of Marty Wu, better reflects the novel’s contents.
The only other quibble I have with what is a promising debut is that the story is told in diary entries, some of which are written in terse sentence fragments, almost like a bullet list of events and emotions, while other entries are full-fledged narratives. I realize that diarists vary their writing depending on their mood and the content of their reflection, but I found it occasionally distracting here.
If you’re looking for a summer read that is breezy but also has something serious on its mind, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu might belong in your beach bag or travel tote.