Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Release Date: September 26, 2017
Publisher: Simon Pulse
[UPDATED] I’m changing themes to Trigger/Content warnings, as I’d like to start adding them to my reviews: attempted suicide, parental abuse, emotional abuse, sexual assault/abuse, anxiety
My Rating: ★★★★
Goodreads Summary: Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin. But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.
I’m going to start off by saying while I really, really appreciated this book, it was not an easy read. There were a few times where I had to put it down and do something else for a little bit before I could come back to it. Even though it was difficult, I think this fact made this book feel even more real. If I wasn’t invested in the characters, I wouldn’t have had a hard time reading it.
The portrayal of anxiety in this book is the most accurate I’ve ever read. I can’t even begin to explain how relatable the anxiety in this book was for me, since I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. It meant a lot to me to see myself reflected so strongly in a character, and to hear her story told beautifully and accurately. I also appreciated that this book didn’t follow the trope of “love cures all” (mental illness). Our main character is going to struggle with these things for the rest of her life, and falling in love won’t cure that.
This was also the first time I’ve really seen truly awful, but realistic emotional abuse depicted on the page. I’m lucky enough to have parents who love me more than anything, and they are in NO way like Kiko’s mother, but I can see parallels with how Kiko’s mother treats her and how a lot of parents believe they can treat their children. I can relate to the feeling of never being good enough for your parents, and being constantly anxious that you’re going to let someone down. Seeing the relationship between Kiko and her mother was fascinating, though also incredibly frustrating and painful. My only complaint is that both Kiko’s parents seemed a little bit flat, and I wish their characters had been developed a bit more.
I also wish Kiko’s relationships with her brothers could have been explored more. We did get a bit towards the end, but I wish there had been more of a close relationship between the siblings. It would have made some things in the plot even more interesting to examine and explore, particularly with Kiko being the middle child.
By far my favorite aspect of this book was the depiction of Kiko’s art. I want all of these pieces made and hung in my room immediately. I loved watching Kiko’s art develop along with her character, and the descriptions of her art at the end of each chapter made the emotional impact so much stronger. This combined with the lovely writing style broke my heart so many times, and I wish I could have seen the art physically on the page, rather than just in words.
Another aspect that I loved about this story was the discussion of race, and how racism can be internalized and institutionalized. Racism isn’t always one race against another, you can have racist ideas about your own race, depending on how you are raised to view your culture. It was so intriguing to watch Kiko discover her own culture for the first time, and really view it in a positive way.
Apart from all this, I absolutely adored Jamie and Kiko’s chosen family. All of the characters that Kiko meets along her journey are so supportive and loving, and it made me really happy to see her come into her own, away from all the horrors of her biological family’s life.