AMERICAN PANDA - by Gloria Chao

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Published: July 2019 - Simon Pulse.
Genre: Young adult / romance / contemporary.
Pages: 336.
Triggers/Content Advisory: N.A.
Format: Paperback.
Source: Thank you so much to Jonathan Ball Publishers SA for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review. I voluntarily read and reviewed this book. All thoughts are my own. 

At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth—that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese. But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

More than anything, I wanted to own this novel because of the cover. No matter what the edition it’s always adorable and aesthetically pleasing. And now, I’m happy to report that the inside of the book is just as beautiful.

I don’t love Chao’s writing, but there’s nothing bad about it. She writes well, there’s a heart aching honesty and soulfulness about her prose, and the frequent humour is enough to make you smile and warm your heart. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. But I didn’t love the book for its writing so much as for its heart, story, and themes.

The story is stunning. It moves slowly, but there’s no drama for the sake of drama; no contrived plot points. From start to finish, the story is gentle, heart wrenching, and realistic. My heart broke for Mei and then it soared when hers did. I was utterly invested in her journey. While yes, the story is slow, the plot relies on the three-dimension of its heroine and the depth of her relationships to take flight, and it’s explosive in its quiet passion, depth of feeling, and gut wrenching familial relationships and culture conflicts. It makes an impact, which sneaks up on you as you read.

    There was no right or wrong here. No morality. Just two roads, leading in different directions but both ending in heartbreak. Life was, as I was finding out, Choose Your Own Adventure with most of the fun stripped away.    

Mei is a lovely heroine. I admire her so much, and I wish I could be as even-tempered, forgiving, and patient as she constantly chooses to be. She's under so much pressure from her parents (her suffocating situation is palpable) and yet she handles the whole conflict with grace. She's never horrible to her parents, she never explodes in a bratty rage - she's kind, and understanding, and loves her parents fiercely, despite their difficult attitudes. She's so gracious, without being a push-over.
I appreciate seeing a YA heroine who respects her parents and her peers and is genuinely a well-behaved young woman. It's not usual.

I also love Mei's romance with Darren and her friendship with Nicolette. Her relationship with her brother, Xing, didn't make an impression on me, but I liked her dynamics with Darren and Nicolette. Both of them are wonderful, well drawn characters. She and Darren are adorable and swoony, and Nicolette complements Mei's personality so well.

American Panda is a soulful, heartbreaking, ultimately hopeful exploration of family, culture, and self acceptance. It’s beautiful inside and out.

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