Thursday, November 1, 2007

April and the Dragon Lady

April and the Dragon Lady
by Lensey Namioka
Harcourt Publishers
Reviewed by Melissa

April is your average American teen. She's a part of the Rock Hound club, enjoying the time they spend searching for geodes and other interesting rocks. She has aspirations to go out of state to college. She has a boyfriend, Steve, who dotes on her, and even likes her family. She plays flute in the orchestra.

There's one difference, though. April is Chinese-American, and her grandmother lives with them.

It doesn't seem like a big difference, or that it would really matter, but that's the heart of this slim novel. April has to come to terms with her own place in life. Unfortunately her life is constantly complicated by her family. Her mother died two years ago; her father is dating someone new, Ellen, who, while Chinese-American, doesn't exactly fit into the traditional Chinese family. Her brother, Harry, is selfish, always putting his interests first, thereby always being gone, leaving April with the job of watching after their Grandmother, the Dragon Lady of the title. April's relationship is especially complicated with her. She loves her Grandmother and she feels a duty toward her, but with her Grandma's increasing age and infirmities, she's taking up more and more of April's time, leaving less and less for the life that April wants to lead.

The premise of the book is a good one; it was nice to have a portrait of a first-generation Chinese-American household. And, I liked that it was directed at teens, leaving aside many of the weightier details found in Amy Tan's books. But, Namioka lacks the grace and the ability of a writer like Amy Tan. Many times the conversations -- especially between Amy and her boyfriend, Steve -- fell flat. This one, from the middle of the book, is fairly typical:

"I'm sorry, Steve," I said. I hadn't expected Steve -- who was so tolerant -- to be offended. "I was taught that scholars are on the very top of the social scale and soldiers at the bottom. I didn't mean to insult your father."
"Dad wasn't thinking about the social scale," Steve said coolly. "He didn't join the army because he couldn't find a job. He did it because he thought that was the best way to serve his country."

In silence, we looked over some cloth shoes from China. I had always thought of myself as American as everybody else... So it came as a shock to discover that some of my values were not the same as Steve's.
And then, not too much later:

"It's not your fault every time something bad happens in the world,"
protested Steve.

"I'm not saying I'm responsible for the whole world!" I cried. "Chinese family ties are very strong, and I do feel responsible for what happens to my own family."

Steve was silent for a long time. "I guess I do understand -- sort of," he said finally. "Different people have different customs, as I keep telling myself."

He said he understood, but I could see that he really didn't. Yet he was doing his best to meet me halfway. I swallowed hard and blinked back my tears.
And then, after a confrontation with her grandmother:

Did Steve like me just because I was Asian and he was attracted to the Far East? Did he think I was "submissive"? Would he stay faithful once my "novelty" had worn off? I had missed a couple of the recent Rock Hounds fieldtrips, and Steve had been partnered with Judy during their outings. I wondered if Steve would eventually throw me over and go steady with Judy because she was of his own race.

The problem was that I belonged neither to the world of Steve and Judy, nor to Grandma's world. Belonging to an ethnic group wasn't as simple as belonging to the Rock Hounds. I was a minority of one, and I felt very lonely.
These are legitimate concerns for Amy to be having, yet I felt like Namioka was beating it to death. So many times, Amy comes to some sot of internal crisis brought upon her by either Steve or her Grandmother. And too often I found myself thinking: show me! Stop with the telling.

I liked April as a character, though. I liked her devotion and concern for her family, even when they weren't the most understanding to her. I liked her personal growth, her standing up for herself, while trying to appreciate her more traditional Grandmother. She was really striving for some sort of balance in her life.

The men in the book -- aside from the understanding Steve -- were less than sympathetic. Dad was weak. He couldn't even stand up to his mother, let alone give April any support in her decisions. Harry was a boor. He ate too much, and for most of the book, he refused to help April take care of their Grandmother. Even after his "big" change, he wasn't much help. I'm sure this is a white American response to the book, but it still bothered me.

My favorite character, though, was Grandmother (though I'm not sure we were supposed to like her). She was, aside from April, whose perspective this book was written from, the most real character. She's one of those old ladies you always hope to be when you grow up: a pistol. She's opinionated about who her family associates with (she doesn't like Caucasians, calling them "foreign devils"), she's not unwilling to give them guilt trips when they do something she doesn't like ("running away" on multiple occasions). She's meddlesome (trying to fix up her widowed son with several more "authentic" Chinese women than the one he was dating), and she's got great coping skills. She wasn't the nicest lady, but she worked with what she had really well, and I respected that.

In the end, though, it was only a mediocre book. Which is too bad, since it could have been a very interesting story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very good review! I've read the book - and what you say is so true - it's written well but lack a certain spark.