“The Language of Paying Attention to YOU (Strand Bookstore, used-book section, $1.25) says I’m supposed to write down everything that annoys me in a sharp little notebook with neat, ruled lines, the better to stay on task, or something. It also says that I’m supposed to ‘give myself permission’ to be annoyed. Day one of diary: starting out frustrated.”
Title: NOT a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu
Author: Yi Shun Lai
Contemporary Fiction ♦ 204 Pages ♦ Published May 2016, Shade Mountain Press
Yi Shun Lai’s first novel examines the delicate balance between the reality of needing to make a living, chasing bliss, and familial expectation. Published by Shade Mountain Press, this diary-style novel is a quick and humorous read that often turns poignant and heart-breaking.
Marty Wu is obsessed with self-help books, mostly because she feels that she needs all the help she can get dealing with her critical mother and an advertising job that she hates. Her dream is to open a boutique costuming shop in Queens, preferably within walking distance of her apartment, but of course that requires money. The solution? None, except to keep saving what she can from her job she only got after dating the boss.
But an opportunity presents itself in Las Vegas for her to land a commission so big it means that she could open up her shop and not have to work in advertising any more, EVER. Unfortunately, in classic Marty style, she botches it–BIG-TIME. Now her only option if she wants enough money to even keep herself fed is to catch a flight with her mother to visit the family home in Taiwan.
And here is where Marty’s story really begins, as she uses her time in Taiwan to reconnect to relatives, including a “life-so-perfect-it’s-gaggy” older brother and relatives who actually love her; distract herself from her mess of a life; and reexamine her values and goals. Along the way, she must confront her mother’s abusive tendencies and her own self-sabotage.
Overall, this was a rather enjoyable read. It’s got a little bit of everything: melodrama, romance, scandal, pathos, wit, cynicism. Marty is a hilarious narrator who really has the self-deprecating humor down. She’s a flawed protagonist who, while deep down being a passionate and loving individual, has learned to cope with her mother’s abuse by pretending not to take anything seriously, at least not in public.
It’s here that the diary-style format really shines. At the beginning of the book, Marty definitely employs humor and snark to describe her life. As the book progresses, and Marty’s prospects rapidly decline, the shift is evident in how she communicates with herself via the diary. She becomes much more introspective as her own behavior begins to give way to the anger and hurt she’s always felt at the hands of her mother. And in turn, she has breakthroughs about what she really wants out of life. But these revelations aren’t grand and lovely. She continues to struggle with her crippling self-doubt, taking time and making mistakes.
Marty’s mother is a gorgeous example of a complex character. Throughout the book’s beginning, she shines as a villainous trope. But later her own illness is revealed, and in true family fashion, it’s shown that this is something “we don’t talk about.” The revelation of her mother’s mental illness strikes Marty, and for the first time, she is capable of feeling more than guilt and anger about her mother.
Sometimes the narrative seemed a bit frantic, especially toward the end, or a bit contrived. However, these instances were few and far between. Most of the time, I found myself wincing at Marty’s faux pas, laughing along with her, or sharing in her schadenfreude when someone other than herself suffered a setback. Overall, I enjoyed reading this, and I would love to see more from this author.
About the Author
Yi Shun Lai was born in Taiwan and was raised in the United States. Currently living in California, she helps other writers to get noticed by offering Writing Coaching and Editing advice. She also enjoys painting watercolors! NOT a Self-Help Book is her first novel. You can order it here, directly from Shade Mountain Press, whose motto is “A Mob Of Scribbling Women,” and is dedicated to publishing the best of female literary-quality work.