Book Review: THE INCENDIARIES by R. O. Kwon

Will Kendall is in love with Phoebe Lin. The problem is that Phoebe is becoming ever more enmeshed in a cult: a cult that lashes out in an act of terrifying violence that Will can’t reconcile with his glamorous, aloof, perfect vision of Phoebe. The Incendiaries explores what happens when faith takes over someone’s life, leaving those who love them helplessly trapped on the other side. I loved this novel’s story and characters, but I had trouble following its timeline and stakes until the very end, when the whole thing clicks into place. I found it mostly satisfying; other readers might be disappointed. The Incendiaries is moving and thought-provoking, but I do wish it’d been just a little clearer. Its characters are trapped in a fog of confusion and regret–the reader didn’t have to be.

You can read my full review below.


The Incendiaries Cover
cover description: Colorful, bright geometric shapes.

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

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  • publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: hardcover in 2018, paperback in 2019
  • length: 240 pages

But this is where I start having trouble, Phoebe. Buildings fell. People died. You once told me I hadn’t even tried to understand. So here I am, trying.

–from The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

Faith, first love, money (and lack of it), alcohol, terrorism, an elite college, suicide, a cult. The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon’s first novel, is made of heady stuff. In it, a young scholarship student who recently lost his evangelical Christian faith, Will, falls in love with a mysterious and beautiful young woman with a complicated past: Phoebe.

It took me a beat too long to understand that the whole book is told from Will’s perspective, although The Incendiaries alternates between chapters labeled Will, Phoebe, and John Leal.

John Leal is a cult leader, a Christian zealot who did a terrifying stint in a North Korean prison after trying to help smuggle people out. He’s a cipher for the entirety of the novel–why go from a righteous cause, like freeing people from a dictatorship, to something as sinister as a murderous cult?

The Incendiaries plays out like a love triangle, except instead of three whole people, it’s more like one person–Will–battling his two contradictory ideals of Phoebe. In one, Phoebe is the love of his life, the first woman he has sex with, a brilliant pianist (who threw it all away because she couldn’t be perfect enough), a social butterfly.

But in the other, Phoebe is the instigator of a horrifying and deadly bombing, a nightmare from which Will cannot wake up.

In The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon writes with a cold, bright intensity, like a strobe light in a dark club. The frozen images we experience are alternately sexy, bloody, predatory, bloodless. It’s an interesting and original way to tell a version of a story I’m endlessly fascinated by: what happens when people get hopelessly caught up in a group that’s bad news. (The Girls by Emma Cline, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, and The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat are just a few examples.)

The problem is that The Incendiaries is so alternately full of sharp edges and smooth surfaces that I found it impossible to ever get a proper grasp on it. I was solidly halfway through the novel before I understood what was happening; I was all the way to the end before the chronology made any kind of sense.

You also have to be willing to accept a certain amount of melodrama, which I think is mostly but not entirely effective. Will is wholly, almost religiously consumed by Phoebe, which is the point–in a nutshell, The Incendiaries is about the ways human love and religious devotion mirror each other, each one causing us to commit previously unimaginable acts–but it’s also occasionally grating.

Luckily, I thought Will, Phoebe, and John Leal are interesting enough to justify the obsessive attention Kwon pays them. But if you’re not a fan of this type of hyper-focused, character-driven literary novel, you’re likely to find it to be an awful lot of navel-gazing.

Despite all that, The Incendiaries gets better and better in my memory the farther I am from its electric final chapter. Thematically, Kwon bites off more than almost any author could conceivably chew, and transforms it into a fascinating, enigmatic, eminently memorable story. It reminded me of Yaa Gyasi’s debut, Homegoingin that way: it wasn’t not always a great experience while I was reading it, but I’m grateful to have read it anyway.

In the end, Phoebe and John Leal’s motives are no clearer to us than they are to Will. Kwon asks us to sit with that discomfort and interrogate it, like tonguing raw gums after a pulled tooth.

If sincere belief can be used to justify such terrible ends, why believe anything at all? Why take the risk of loving anyone at all?

Because, The Incendiaries seems to argue, we can’t help it. Reasons and narrative are merely justifications to be applied afterwards, turned over and over in our minds till we come up with a story we’re satisfied with.

The Incendiaries is an excellent case for writing wildly ambitious, unrealistic novels and trusting that the right readers will love and connect with them anyway. When someone tells me that they didn’t like a novel because it wasn’t realistic, that merely tells me that something more primal has failed, that the wrong fictional buttons were pushed, the wrong hormones engaged. For a truly great story, we will put all objections of realism aside, whether that story is an overt one–a novel, a movie–or the covert one we’re always telling, the one about our own lives and relationships, the one that pushes us to believe, to love, to do something. Anything.

The Incendiaries is a fascinating book. I’m not sure that it’s always successful, but it is always, always great. ★★★★☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I got my copy of The Incendiaries from the library and was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish new book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.

Book Review: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO INTERRACIAL LOVE? by Kathleen Collins

Kathleen Collins was a groundbreaking artist: a playwright, filmmaker, educator, and activist as well as a writer. She died young in 1988 and her work was at risk of fading into obscurity until the publication of this collection in 2016. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, named for one of the standouts of the collection–a bittersweet, sly story about how the politics of the Civil Rights Movement played out on a personal level–is absolutely wonderful. It’s made up of 16 intimate stories that are so short that they border on flash fiction; each one feels simultaneously like an overheard scrap of someone’s life and like a whole, rich meal. This is easily one of my new favorite short story collections. Collins was an extraordinary talent and I wish she had been with us longer.

You can read my full review below.


Whatever Happened to Interracial Love Cover
cover description: a black and white photo of a Black woman looking directly at the viewer, closely cropped so we only see her from the shoulders up. Abstract smudges of red and purple surround her.

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins

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  • publisher: Ecco (HarperCollins)
  • publication date: December 6, 2016
  • length: 192 pages

I had an uncle who cried himself to sleep. Yes, it’s quite a true story and it ended badly. That is to say, one night he cried himself to death.

–from “The Uncle” in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins

How do you get a reader to care about a short story? There’s so much less time to get a short story off the ground than a novel, so much more pressure to find just the right hook to pull us in.

But in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, Kathleen Collins seemed to trust that dialogue was enough, her characters were enough, their problems were enough. This is a short story collection that is bold in its unassumption and I was riveted to every page.

It starts with “Exteriors,” in which a conflict between a couple is set up like a shot for a movie, followed immediately by “Interiors,” made up of two stream-of-consciousness monologues from husband and wife. In “The Uncle,” a woman’s wonderful childhood memories of her aunt and uncle are disrupted by the adult truths of their lives. In “Documentary Style,” a combative Black cameraman resents the woman who will edit his work. And in “Of Poets, Galleries, New York Passages,” two New York artists host a friend from the country, each projecting their fantasies of city and suburban life onto the others.

The title story is as provocative as its name suggests, both mischievously and seriously examining what happens when the personal becomes too political, when the politics of the Civil Rights Movement embedded themselves in romance and sex as well as protests and policy.

Every story in the collection is so good that it’s hard to choose standouts. Collins had one of the best ears for dialogue I’ve ever encountered–right up there with Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God–and a knack for imagery that symbolizes without feeling symbolic. Not a thing about Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is artificial or forced.

Collins wrote as fluidly as most people think, or talk, or breathe. I’m sure it was hard work, but her work is so skillfully hidden from the reader that it’s hard to picture it happening at all, as if it sprung fully formed from her mind onto the pages of the book in my hands.

Sadness lingers around the edges of every story, both because of the heartrending subject matter (most of the stories are about disintegrating relationships, especially romantic ones) and because you know from the lovely foreword by poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander that Collins died at the age of only 46, in 1988, before her work could gain the full acclaim in her lifetime that it deserved.

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? works as both a terrific book on its own merits and a fierce rebuttal to the way Black women artists are systematically marginalized and deliberately forgotten. It’s a treasure trove of great writing and fascinating politics. It’s an essential manifesto of Black and female art; it’s also purely delightful, unforgettable, compulsively readable fiction. It’s given me a new vision for what a short story can be, and what a short story collection can be.

What an excellent way to spend an hour or two. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? doesn’t ask much of your time, but in its own quiet way it does command–demand, in fact–your full attention. You will be happy to oblige. ★★★★★

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I got my copy of Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? from the library and was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.

Book Review: LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Instead of writing new book reviews during this U.S. holiday week, I thought I’d re-post a couple of the early reviews I wrote for this site, updating the original (terrible) formatting and getting them to a wider audience than they had the first time around.

Today I’m reposting my original review of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, a novel about two suburban families whose lives collide in unforgettable ways, which I called “magic” the first time around (an assessment I definitely still agree with!).

You can read my full review below.


9780735224292
cover description: a miniature view of a picturesque suburb.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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  • publisher: Penguin Press (Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: 2017
  • length: 352 pages

Some books, like this one, are magic. They succeed on every level, they hit every emotional sweet spot, they do things with words that remind me why writing is such a unique and incredible art form…and I just can’t explain why. This book struck me dumb with awe and gratitude. I finished it over a week ago, now, and I’m still struggling to articulate how much I loved it, because the truth is that I loved it too much for words.

Bear with me, folks.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story about a lot of things, but it’s especially the story of a place and two families that live there: Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a planned community struggling to cope with the rapidly encroaching mess unpredictability of the outside world; the Richardsons are a big, messy, mostly-happy upper-middle-class white family with deep roots; and mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren are newcomers no one can quite figure out. When Mia instigates an ugly custody battle between a young Chinese American woman, Bebe Chow, and the wealthy white neighbors who attempt to adopt her baby, May Ling, the community is blown open and family secrets laid bare.

The story isn’t told in order, and opens as the Richardsons’ house burns to the ground around them. From that first page, I was hooked. The closest book I can think to compare it to–though they’re not really similar at all–is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But where I found Eugenides’ book to be an arch, unpleasant, and chilly allegory for the folly of suburbia, Ng is deeply, warmly concerned with a real suburban community and characters so lifelike they might as well be real people.

I think “realistic” is a quality that can be overrated in fiction, because it’s fiction–why not take the opportunity to create something intricately, beautifully unreal? As long as an author does it well, I’m onboard. But Little Fires Everywhere did remind me of the magic and power of authors who write about the real world and understand real people: what we think like, what we act like, and what we care about. Ng not only understands people, but values them. She treats her characters–most of whom are painfully clueless, some borderline malicious–as if they are all worthy of love and respect. It’s revelatory, especially because Little Fires Everywhere is literary fiction, which is a genre that I think values coldness overmuch and compassion too little.

Every scene, no matter how slight, benefits from this loving characterization. Characters with only few paragraphs devoted to them are still given actions and dialogue that hints at the rich motivation within; central characters we thought we understood are given shake-ups that reveal new and satisfying depths. I particularly loved the (very) minor character of Mr. Yang, a tenant of the Richardsons and downstairs neighbor of the Warrens, and the more central characters of Trip and Moody, teenage Richardson sons who are tender and emotional and defy every dull and tired stereotype of teenage boys.

But of all these characters to fall in love with, my favorite was Mia Warren, whom we discover is a gifted photographer as well as mother and enigmatic drifter. A powerful theme of the book is the process of creation, punishing and healing by turns, whether it’s art-making or motherhood. I cried several times at this book, and each time it was because of that push and pull: the things mothers give up and the things their children give back; the things the children lose that their mothers want to stop them from losing but can’t; the bravery and vulnerability it takes to put art into the world.

I think most of us have at least some idea of what makes a good mother, but novels about visual artists can be especially hit or miss because we can’t see for ourselves whether a canvas or photograph is good or bad or mediocre–the author has to tell us. Thankfully, Ng has a light touch when describing Mia’s talents, trusting the mind’s eye of the reader to fill in the rest.

In fact, it’s been a long time since my mind’s eye felt so engaged in a novel. I was born in ’95 and thus have no memories of the late ’90s, I know nothing about Ohio, and I certainly knew nothing about Shaker Heights, but every scene is so carefully detailed, as lovingly costume-designed and set-dressed as a Wes Anderson movie (though less twee by half), that I felt there.

This absorbing, transporting quality is especially wonderful because Little Fires Everywhere is told in the omniscient 3rd-person, often hopping from mind-to-mind mid-scene, a technique I associate most with epic, impersonal fantasy novels and not with intimate family dramas. It turns out that–at least in Ng’s skilled hands–that mind-hopping can actually make a book more personal and more intimate. We don’t see one side of an argument, we see all of them: a good quality in a book filled with complicated and unwinnable arguments.

I could write a book-length love letter to this book. (Can you tell?) I could especially go on for hours about its razor-sharp critique of the kind of feel-good, orderly white liberalism that crumbles in the face of honest and difficult questions.

But I won’t go on any longer. I’ll just trust that you’ll read Little Fires Everywhere, and tell all your friends, and tell them to tell all of their friends, too. This book is miraculous. Don’t miss it. ★★★

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


 My copy of Little Fires Everywhere came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

I post book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday. Today’s post is a rerun. I’ll be back to posting original content next week.

Book Review: DREAM SEQUENCE by Adam Foulds

Dream Sequence is a thriller about a British actor whose star is on the rise and the broken-hearted, obsessive American fan who stalks him–at least, that’s what the jacket copy would have you believe. Unfortunately for readers expecting a sharp new take on Misery that skewers American anglophile fan culture, Dream Sequence is maddeningly muddy and dull. There are two electric and memorable scenes, but they don’t come close to compensating for the rest. I don’t recommend Dream Sequence at all.

You can read my full review below.


Dream Sequence Cover
cover description: Red and pink lipstick prints on a white background. The lipstick prints are in the rough shape of a face.

Dream Sequence by Adam Foulds

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  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (distributed by Macmillan)
  • publication date: June 11, 2019
  • length: 224 pages

Lion, little Lionel who loved her, had given her Spiderman one day without telling her. Spiderman had become a crucial part of the story. It all added up. Kristin picked up the remote and flipped on an old episode. When Henry appeared, she thought she would tell him about the wind and the snow and about what Laurie had said about seeds in winter in her next letter. She would start on it later. Letters flew past all that electronic noise and went straight to his hands.

–from Dream Sequence by Adam Foulds

Dream Sequence is a weak character study built onto a more interesting thriller’s skeleton: it follows Kristin, a recently divorced woman who fixates on the star of a British costume drama, and the actor himself, Henry. It’s instantly clear that Kristin’s fantasies about Henry will come to fruition in some awful way, but instead of capitalizing on that tension, author and poet Adam Foulds squanders it spectacularly.

Dream Sequence is a pastiche of the worst parts of both the thriller genre and the literary genre: it’s unpleasantly lurid and gross (there is more than one nauseating description of semen!) as well as boring and snooty.

The action in Dream Sequence is driven entirely by Kristin’s character–Henry is obnoxiously passive–but it doesn’t seem to care much about her. Instead we get an interminable 150-or-so page middle section about the inner life of Henry, who’s a douche and a milquetoast, terrible and boring.

The exact moment I fully loathed Dream Sequence came almost at the end, on page 194, when Henry (who is white and British) is shown a picture of his brother’s biracial children (their mother, Henry’s sister in law, is from Hong Kong):

‘Aren’t they beautiful?’ Henry’s mother asked.

They were. They had that refined, intelligent looking beauty of Anglo-Chinese children, dark eyes, sweetly geometric hair. There were two pictures, one in which they both looked serious and one in which Chloë’s head was tipped back and she was laughing, showing her tiny teeth.

I hate that section for two reasons: one, because “refined, intelligent looking beauty” is such a bizarre and stereotypical way to talk about Asian children, and two, because it’s a perfect example of Foulds using two or three adjectives when one or none would do, perhaps the worst sin of a novel full of sins.

It’s possible to write about an awful character without your whole book becoming awful, but it requires a strong point of view, which Dream Sequence never develops. It’s the difference between watching security footage of a bad person’s life and watching a skillfully made documentary about them. This is security footage.

Dream Sequence is already quite short at 224 pages but could have easily been cut down by two thirds. The amount of words Foulds wrings out of such an underdeveloped plot is mind-boggling.

There are two truly excellent parts on offer, however.

The first comes near the beginning of the novel, after Henry auditions for a dream role with an auteur director and desperately follows him to an art museum afterwards. The dialogue in the scene is pitch-perfect; the way Henry’s yearning for the director’s respect mirrors Kristin’s slavish adoration of Henry is subtle but effective.

The second great scene comes when Kristin seeks out Henry’s agent in the final pages. The two women have a conversation that’s so vivid and vulnerable and tense that it made me second-guess my by-then-solidly negative opinion of the book.

Had I simply misunderstood the parts I hated? Did Foulds have a solid hand on the reins of this novel after all?

I re-read the worst pages just to be sure. I hated them just as much the second time.

Despite its intriguing premise and a couple of tantalizing flashes of brilliance, Dream Sequence thuds. ★★☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I got my copy of Dream Sequence from the library and was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.

Book Review: THE BORDER OF PARADISE by Esmé Weijun Wang

In the 1950s, David Nowak, a neurotic Polish American heir to a piano fortune, marries Jia-Hui Chen, a young woman from Taiwan with nerves of steel, and moves with her to remote northern California. Their relationship is volatile, but its legacy for their children will be much worse. The Border of Paradise is an astonishing historical novel that’s unlike anything I’ve read before, in the best possible way. If you love creepy thrillers like The Vegetarian by Han Kang or intimate portraits of trauma like History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund–or if, like me, you love both of those things–then this novel is a must-read. I deeply enjoyed The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang’s nonfiction essay collection, earlier this year. I’m pleased to say I like her fiction just as much.

Content note: Suicide and self harm are central to The Border of Paradise. If those things are triggers for you, then you should consider carefully before reading the rest of this review (or the book itself).

You can read my full review below.


The Border of Paradise Cover
cover description: An illustration of a sickly-looking person in a field of grass being held up by ghostly hands.

The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang

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  • publisher: Unnamed Press
  • publication date: 2016
  • length: 292 pages

I’ve never known a man who has taken his own life, and so I’ve never read a suicide letter, seeing as how the final words of such uncelebrated and self-condemned souls are so privately guarded. Still, I can’t help but think such letters all must be the same, because what else can be said but, over and over again, Sorry, sorry, I am so sorry, in the way that someone newly smitten can only say I love you, I love you, I love you…

–from The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang

In The Border of Paradise, Esmé Weijun Wang writes in long paragraphs that still feel light and airy, like a dense pastry that fluffs up in the oven. That’s a good thing, because the subject matter of this novel is almost unbearably heavy.

David Nowak, a teenage boy in 1940s-1950s New York, is a brilliant student and heir to a piano factory and accompanying fortune, but he can’t stop strange new neuroses from creeping in. He becomes unable to select clothes and dress himself. When he looks in the mirror, his body is impossibly distorted. He becomes hysterically attached to stuffed animals.

He knows something is wrong, but not what. The word schizophrenia is, to my memory, never used in The Border of Paradise, but we the readers can fill in the blanks.

David’s instability culminates in him being forcibly separated from his childhood sweetheart, Marianne, by her father, who is sneeringly cruel about David’s condition. Heartbroken, David cashes out the family fortune and leaves for Taiwan, where he marries a young woman named Jia-Hui, whom he renames Daisy.

Everyone warns Jia-Hui against David’s moods and volatility, but Jia-Hui has instabilities of her own–ones that have horrifying consequences for the couple’s two children.

I wouldn’t call The Border of Paradise horror, but it is horrifying. There is ample gore, disturbing sex, and piercing descriptions of what it’s like to live with untreated mental illness.

Of course, in the time period in which The Border of Paradise is set, there wasn’t really such a thing as treated mental illness. Wang uses this historical setting in unusual ways. Instead of yoking the story to real world historical events or intricate period detail, she focuses on internal, insular experiences instead.

In one word, The Border of Paradise is about isolation: the absolute isolation of being an immigrant woman of color, or a mentally ill person, or an abused child in the 1950s-1970s, when there was little awareness of these issues in the general public and no internet communities to turn to, either.

This novel is emotionally dense and deeply introspective, but it’s also extremely readable. It’s peppered with plot bombshells, dramatic and cinematic without straining belief. (I do wonder if Wang is trying to say something about the nature of delusion and hallucination here–how real life really can be stranger than the fictions our own brains can tell us.)

I raced to get to the end, using it as motivation to hop on the treadmill at the end of each day, knowing it would absorb me enough to make my workout fly by.

Specific and intense, The Border of Paradise is like a fever dream if your feverish brain were a top notch novelist. This novel is a gift. ★★★★★

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of The Border of Paradise and was in no way compensated for this review.

*Programming note: Book reviews will appear every Tuesday and Thursday going forward. I look forward to being back on a regular posting schedule!

Book Review: THE BODY MYTH by Rheea Mukherjee

The Body Myth is an ambitious novel that’s full of all sorts of ingredients I like: explorations of health, sickness, loss, love, queerness, non-monogamous and nontraditional relationships, and prickly women. About a disaffected schoolteacher in a fictional city in India whose chance encounter with a young couple in a park leads to an intense, life-altering triad, The Body Myth is drenched in existentialism and Sufism. (The narrator, Mira, is obsessed with Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Foucault, all noticeable influences on Rheea Mukherjee’s writing style.) It ties Western and Eastern philosophies together in intriguing ways, but unfortunately, the end result is too shaggy and oblique for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. I admired this book more than I enjoyed it–but I did admire it very, very much, and I’ll be keeping tabs on Mukherjee’s future work, as well as checking out her previous short story collection, Transit for Beginners.

You can read my full review of The Body Myth below.


The Body Myth Cover
cover description: An illustration of some kind of tree or vines growing out of two broken halves of a body. The background is orange.

The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

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  • publisher: Unnamed Press
  • publication date: February 26, 2019
  • length: 234 pages

The woman was sitting on a park bench in West Point Gardens, where I came every Sunday for a five-kilometer walk. She couldn’t see me, but I had stopped mid-stride to stare at her. I looked at her for three reasons:

(1) her face was twisted in contemplation;

(2) she was wearing a beige kurta with a transparent golden dupatta; and

(3) she was fucking gorgeous.

–from The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

I went through a Jean-Paul Sartre phase. Like The Body Myth’s adrift and grieving narrator, Mira, it happened as a way to cope with one of the most difficult times in my life, when my mental health was in freefall and it was an effort just to stay alive. I read Sartre in a philosophy class and held on for dear life. Existentialism saved my life then, and in a less intense way, it still appeals to me now.

For that reason and many others, I was easily transported to the world of The Body Myth, Rheea Mukherjee’s first novel, which is deeply existentialist fiction in the tradition of Sartre’s own Nausea. It felt a little like visiting an old friend.

Mira is a widowed schoolteacher just going through the motions when she meets young, attractive couple Sara and Rahil in a local park. She witnesses Sara having a seizure–was it a seizure or a performance? We’re left to question that almost immediately–and Rahil rushing to comfort her. The chance encounter blooms into an intense friendship between them and Mira, and very quickly a romantic and sexual love triangle, as well.

Sara is plagued by mysterious illnesses: cramps, arthritis, mouth ulcers, fevers, fatigue, and, of course, seizures. Rahil takes careful care of her. It quickly becomes obvious that Mira has stumbled into a heady, codependent ritual of needing and being needed that has less to do with illness than it does with love and marriage. It’s a ritual that Mira’s presence disturbs forever.

The Body Myth is fascinating. Mukherjee writes like no one else I’ve ever read, accomplishing much more than just updating Sartre for the 21st century. This novel is earthy, frank, surprising, and full of flashes of brilliant, beautiful insight that make me want to sit down and have coffee with Mukherjee someday.

The Body Myth’s ideas about the ways being sick feeds into our universal need to feel loved and cared for particularly interested me. As I’ve written many times on this blog before, I’m chronically ill in ways that have felt very mysterious at times; I was a little nervous to read a novel that so baldly implies that its chronically ill character isn’t “really” sick, but thankfully, Mukherjee takes the premise in a more abstract, thought-provoking direction than merely, she’s faking it.

Perhaps “abstract” is the key descriptor for The Body Myth. I could go on for hours about all the philosophical threads Mukherjee ravels and tugs at–the way she connects Sufism and existentialism was truly moving and mind-blowing to me–but I was less enthused about this novel as fiction than I was about this novel as a big repository of ideas.

In that way, it reminded me of Sorry to Bother Youalso a big-repository-of-ideas piece of fiction that was striking and memorable but that I ultimately kind of loathed as a movie. I didn’t come anywhere close to loathing The Body Myth, but its plot machinations felt clunky in the same way as Sorry to Bother You‘s, especially towards the end.

I want a plot to feel like more than just something to hang beautiful prose upon, even in literary fiction, and unfortunately, The Body Myth never quite clears that bar. Its ending especially goes off the rails.

But I still enjoyed it, and I’m still glad I read it. I think a good barometer for whether or not you’ll get something out of The Body Myth is whether or not you enjoy a little navel-gazing in the style of late-night dorm room conversations about the meaning of life, man (but with a women’s studies twist). I love those conversations, even when they get a little ridiculous, and so I was happy to indulge Mukherjee here.

I didn’t love The Body Myth, but I doubt I’ll forget it. This is a unique and startling novel. ★

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


My copy of The Body Myth came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THAT TIME I LOVED YOU by Carrianne Leung

In ten linked stories that function almost as a novel, Carrianne Leung writes with a simple directness that belies the depth and power of her themes. That Time I Loved You is entirely set in one suburban neighborhood in Scarborough, Canada. It has a recurring cast of characters, but its central character is a Chinese Canadian middle schooler, June. June is the narrator of three stories and appears as a watchful presence in the rest. The action kicks off with a series of suicides of parents in the neighborhood, which send the surviving adults (and especially their kids) into a tizzy of fear and gossip.

Suburbia is a common setting for literary fiction, but Leung really makes it something special here. Her writing reminded me of Celeste Ng’s, another writer who understands that suburbs are more complex–in race, class, gender, sexual, and family dynamics–than your stereotypical snooty WASPs and manicured lawns. At times I wished she had been a little more ambitious with her straight-ahead prose, but overall, I thought this quiet, lovely collection was well worth my time.

You can read my full review below.


That Time I Loved You Cover
cover description: An illustration of rows and rows of similar houses with different colored roofs separated by solid dark blue bars.

That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

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  • publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company)
  • publication date: February 26, 2019
  • length: 224 pages

1979: This was the year the parents in my neighborhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade 6. Elsewhere in the world, big things were happening. McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides.

–from “Grass” in That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

I recently tried to re-read The Virgin Suicides, a novel I read and failed to understand or connect with when I was about 14. Unfortunately I found it just as opaque and slippery the second time around, and set it aside without finishing.

That Time I Loved You, Carrianne Leung’s first short story collection, is worth comparing to The Virgin Suicides in more ways than one. First, it’s about a series of suicides; second, it’s about 1970s-1980s suburbia and how hard it is to grow up. But where Jeffrey Eugenides took a highly stylized, metaphorical approach to those themes–too stylized and too metaphorical, in my opinion–Leung’s style is so direct and realistic it almost reads like memoir. (Leung did in fact grow up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where That Time I Loved You is set.)

Perhaps a better comparison is Celeste Ng’s hit novel Little Fires Everywhere, which I loved, and which is soon to be made into a Hulu TV series. If you loved that, you’ll also find a lot to love in this.

Like Ng, Leung intimately understands suburbs, not as narrative devices or places to be derided by people who live in the city, but as real places. Her characters are not icy, repressed blondes; they’re a far more diverse group of mainly immigrants: Chinese, Jamaican, Portuguese, Italian. The sex these people have doesn’t feel like a defilement of the American Dream (not least because they’re Canadian); it feels like the sex that real people have. The growing up that June and her friends must do doesn’t happen in some single cathartic moment that’s a statement about the loss of innocence; instead, it happens in a series of tiny, dizzying forward shifts, the way growing up actually felt for me (and, I imagine, the way it felt for most people).

Leung’s suburbia, in other words, resembles the majority of suburbs in which my family and friends have lived. It’s set in 1979 and the very early 1980s, but it felt especially representative of what suburbs look like today, after gentrification and the reverse white flight that has pushed marginalized people back out to the suburbs.

That Time I Loved You‘s suicides feel equally real. They’re the catalyst for the book, but they’re also surprisingly quiet and small. In fact, the most notable thing about them is how un-notable they become to the surviving neighbors. I was concerned that this book would be difficult for me to read given my own history of mental health problems, but luckily Leung treats the subject with great respect and compassion.

That Time I Loved You functions well as a short story collection, but its structure is just close enough to a novel that I’d still recommend it to people who don’t usually like short story collections. That it’s anchored by one memorable character, June, makes it much easier to follow than a typical collection. It’s roughly chronological and takes place all in the same location; events that happen in one story affect the others.

That That Time I Loved You is so realistic helps, too. As much as I like current trends in reality-blurring short fiction, it’s nice to take a break and read a book that doesn’t feature extended dream sequences, hallucinations, or other long jaunts away from the recognizable world.

But as much as I liked having straightforward stories, I did wish that Leung had ventured beyond straightforward prose. Leung is exceptionally talented at developing characters and plot, but her writing style is very simple–which on one hand was kind of a welcome rest for my brain (I’ve done a lot of reading for work and pleasure recently), and on the other left me somewhat unsatisfied, like a meal that tasted good but came in too small a portion. Oh well.

There wasn’t a single story here that I didn’t like, but my favorites were “Fences,” about an Italian American woman struggling to conceive a child with a husband she doesn’t really love, “Sweets,” about June’s grandmother who becomes a surprising ally to one of June’s genderqueer friends, and the final, titular story, “That Time I Loved You,” which is a tour de force culmination of all the stories that came before.

That Time I Loved You is light on its feet despite its serious subject matter, but it never feels insubstantial. It’s a great example of how diverse in form and style short story collections can be–and it’s welcome that its characters are so diverse, too. This book will stay with me. ★★★★☆

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My copy of That Time I Loved You came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.