American Panda by Gloria Chao
Release Date: February 6, 2018
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Trigger Warnings: germophobia, death, emotional abuse/difficult family relationships, racism
My Rating: ★★★★
Goodreads Summary: 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?
I received this book as an eARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Prefacing this review by saying that I’m pretty sick as I’m writing this, so I’m trying to make this as coherent as possible, but it might not be, so apologies in advance. I knew going into this book that it was going to be really good, and it definitely didn’t disappoint me, but it also wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. I thought this book was going to be a dorky and funny contemporary that approached some difficult topics in a lighthearted way. This is not that book. It had its comedic moments, but in general this felt like a pretty heavy book. There also wasn’t as much of a focus on the romance as I was expecting.
Ultimately, this book is a character study. It examines the insanely complex and dynamic relationships between Mei and her family members, as well as the realities of Asian and immigrant culture in the United States today. All of these topics are things that I know very little about, and learning about Asian and Taiwanese/Chinese culture in particular was fascinating. I loved the portrait that this book painted of Mei’s family, especially the relationships between Mei and her mom, and Mei and her brother. I wish there had been a bit more exploration of Mei’s relationship with her father, but I loved how much character development that Chao managed to fit into so many of the book’s main characters.
Mei and Darren were also adorable, and I wish we’d gotten to see a bit more of their relationship over the course of the story. Their relationship was “adorkable” and super cute, but I appreciated that they had their own struggles in their relationship outside of their family and it definitely wasn’t perfect. It was also really interesting to see the development of the relationship between Mei and her roommate, Nicolette. College roommates can either go really well, or really badly, and Mei and Nicolette felt like a pretty accurate picture of that balance.
Mei also suffers from germophobia and anxiety, and while I don’t personally suffer from germophobia, I have people in my family who do, and this depiction felt very accurate (I’m not sure if it’s #ownvoices for this rep). I do, however, suffer from anxiety, and this also was a very relatable aspect of the story, particularly the focus on simultaneously wanting to make your family proud but constantly worrying that you will disappoint them.
Overall, while this book wasn’t as funny or light-hearted as I was expecting, it was a beautiful and fascinating character study that you should absolutely be counting down the days to. We need more books like this in the world.