Motherly praise and motherly criticism. For many women, these can be among the most gratifying and most wounding things in the world, and they have the power to shape the recipients’ lives—for good or ill—far into the future.
In Not a Self-Help Book, a novel that is both harrowing and incredibly funny, Yi Shun Lai explores the effects of an especially harsh and judgmental mother on the long-suffering heroine, Marty Wu. To give you just a sampling of what Marty faces regularly, here’s one remark from her mother, made after Mary has mentioned a long day of work at Retirees’ Review, where she sells advertising:
In fact, making her mother happy has long been a central concern for Marty, who left her previous job as an illustrator so that her mom wouldn’t be so worried about her career. In an effort to keep hold of her sanity in the face of her mother’s unrelenting disapproval, Marty has turned to self-help books, one of which recommends that she keep a diary, the idea being that “writing annoying stuff down ‘takes away its power.’”
The novel itself is written in the form of a diary, and it includes place/time stamps that offer additional outlets for humor (for example, “Day-That-Will-Not-End, 1:31 p.m.” and “Midnight, sometime between May 15 and Tomorrow-Is-Supposed-to-Be-Better”). Although epistolary novels are sometimes criticized for the restraints posed by their limited point of view, Not a Self-Help Book never feels closed in. Marty engages with, and shares insightful reflections about, many other characters (not just her mother but also friends, love interests, colleagues, and other family members), giving the novel an open, free-wheeling sensibility.
Criticism from her mother isn’t the only difficulty that Marty faces. At the start of the novel, she is on the brink of closing a lucrative advertising deal, one promising a bonus big enough that Marty would be able to quit her job and realize her “pipe dream”: opening a little shop in which she would design and sew costumes for clients. But in perhaps the most embarrassing—and hilarious—way imaginable (I don’t want to give away the details), Marty botches the deal and loses her job.
When Marty tells her mother what has happened, the reply is a simple (if not surprising) “I knew it.” With some reservations, Marty decides to accompany her mother on a trip to their native Taiwan, with the goal of escaping her troubles in New York City and reconnecting with her artist brother, her aunts and cousins, and other family members.
In Taiwan, a whole new emotional landscape opens up for Marty, and for readers, and we gradually learn that there’s a much deeper and more complicated story behind the anger Marty’s mother regularly expresses. Lai unfolds this story deftly, and she does a great job of helping readers feel Marty’s frustrations as she tries to get at the truth. At times, even well-meaning family members seem more an impediment than an aid to Marty’s quest.
There’s no neat resolution at the end of the novel, nor should there be. But we get a greater understanding of Marty’s mother and why her relationship with her children is so fraught. We are also left with a sense of hope for Marty’s future, which is just starting to take a more promising shape as the story comes to a close.
This brings me to an aspect of Marty’s story that especially resonated with me: the notion that it’s worth paying attention to “pipe dreams,” even if they’re unlikely to be realized in the ways we imagine. My experience is that ignoring such dreams, even when that seems “for the best” initially, can lead one deep into the woods of metaphysical dissatisfaction. I want to give thanks to any work of literature that plays even the smallest role in helping readers consider where they are in relation to those gloomy woods.
In an interview with Chris Jane from Jane Friedman’s website, Lai spoke of the inspiration for Marty’s story: “[O]n the outside, while Marty is doing everything she can to be the paragon of a stereotypical good daughter, on the inside all kinds of things are fomenting. I always wondered about the girls my parents told me were ‘good girls.’ I wondered what they were like on the inside. I imagined their own voices were a lot louder, on the inside. So I wrote what I thought they might be like.”
Marty’s voice certainly feels authentic and vibrant—for me, especially when she’s actively thinking through her problems or dilemmas, with pro/con lists or frank, often comical assessments of a day’s or hour’s events. Moments like these give her story an immediacy that kept me engaged with the novel from beginning to end.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
▪ The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
▪ Enchantment by Daphne Merkin
▪ My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout