#IMWAYR: Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi
Hello everyone! I skipped last week's post in part because I didn't want to pick up another book to review when I was making such good progress on this amazing one—and now that I'm finished with it, I can't wait to talk about it with you all! Today's book is Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi.
This book is a young adult (YA) novel that skews toward the adult end of the spectrum (our protagonist is in college), so it definitely contains mature content. Also, I will quote the content warning from the beginning of the book for "disordered eating, dysmorphia, and bulimia," and I will also add in a mention of unwanted sexual advances (I promise, this book isn't as depressing as it sounds from all of that).
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Let's start off with the publisher's description of this book:
Jayne and June Baek are nothing alike. June’s three years older, a classic first-born, know-it-all narc with a problematic finance job and an equally soulless apartment (according to Jayne). Jayne is an emotionally stunted, self-obsessed basket case who lives in squalor, has egregious taste in men, and needs to get to class and stop wasting Mom and Dad’s money (if you ask June). Once thick as thieves, these sisters who moved from Seoul to San Antonio to New York together now don’t want anything to do with each other.
That is, until June gets cancer. And Jayne becomes the only one who can help her.
Flung together by circumstance, housing woes, and family secrets, will the sisters learn more about each other than they’re willing to confront? And what if while helping June, Jayne has to confront the fact that maybe she’s sick, too?
I got this book as a Christmas present about 6 months ago, and my goal was to read it immediately after getting it. Obviously, that didn't happen, but I finally got the chance to read it thanks to Sue Jackson at Book by Book's Big Book Summer Challenge (which you can learn more about or see my picks for)!
You can imagine that it takes a pretty exceptional book for its cover to be revealed by Entertainment Weekly—and indeed, this book is truly one of the richest, most unique, and most immensely readable novels I've read in a long time! So let's talk about it.
There's a blurb on the back of this book from NPR, referring to one of Mary H.K. Choi's other books, that reads, "Choi has a real gift for creating a character so real and complex that she can crack his psyche open like a melon and pick through all the gnarly seeds." That quote absolutely applies to Yolk, beginning with this book's protagonist, Jayne. The book opens with Jayne's vulnerability on full display, as she finds herself unable to let go of Jeremy, her ex-boyfriend, current roommate, and a living, breathing example of everything that is wrong with men in this world. (I can't help myself, I have to include this amazing quote from p. 5: "Jeremy calls himself a poet. And a performance artist. But, for him, neither of these things particularly mean anything, and combined they mean even less.") You might be wondering why in the world Jayne hasn't moved out—and it becomes clear that the reasons have to do with deep-seated insecurity, bad choices, and an (un)healthy heaping of bad luck.
What is surprising considering all this is that, despite Jayne's slight trainwreck of a life, she is incredibly compelling—primarily because, contrary to what you might expect, Jayne is self-aware, and immensely clever. I would say this book sets the bar for a character with a defined voice, but if I actually let this book set the bar, then I would be disappointed by every single book until I died, because I don't think I've ever seen another author do anything like this. Jayne may be a mess, but she is also a New Yorker attending a fashion school (the details are always a little hazy), and she has something to say about everything—June's opulent apartment building, the woman Jayne nicknames Cruella who she runs into again and again on the street, a few random dictionary words that serve as ridiculously compelling metaphors, the list goes on, and on, and on. And Jayne's commentary is never annoying—either you laugh out loud because she is so right, or you laugh out loud because she just schooled you. Her thoughts are a source of immense humor, and they make the book quite readable by processing the immensely detailed world a bit so the audience doesn't have to—but also, Jayne's voice gives us a deeper look into her character. Yes, Jayne uses self-awareness as a way of deflecting questions about the issues she truly does not want to acknowledge, but still, it felt as though I could see the stable, brilliant human within Jayne—buried underneath many layers of pain, to be sure, but still there. Here's a quote from p. 46 that I think exemplifies Jayne's awareness of what makes her her:
"There's this whole theory that younger siblings are spoiled. That we're enfeebled from all the mollycoddling. Soft. That by the time it was our turn to rebel, our parents had already given up. I disagree with this wholly. It's firstborns who can't take no for an answer. Youngest kids have iron constitutions. Hardy hides from lifetimes of rejection. A hundred million entreaties for their older siblings to hang out answered by shoves, eye rolls, slammed doors, and stone-cold ditches with peals of laughter."
And on that note, let's talk siblings—specifically, Jayne's older sister June. I imagine there is a part of June that relishes her well-paying job and fancy apartment, in contrast to Jayne's floundering college life and appalling apartment—but that isn't to say that June is some immaculate, perfect human being either. She's terrible about cleaning up after herself, Jayne's perception of her as an idiosyncratic adult nerd isn't entirely off, and she hasn't done her relationship with Jayne any more favors than Jayne has. And yet, somewhat unsurprisingly at this point, June is also an incredibly compelling character. I won't give too much away about her, but one thing I noted while ranting about this book to my brother is that, as rich and complex as she is, I am so glad she does not have her own perspective in this story. That's because, as a sibling myself, I know you can never truly understand what is going through your sibling's mind—as close as you may be, you are nevertheless still an outsider. And so I love that we see June as Jayne does, an enigmatic, sometimes absolutely bizarre figure whose behavior cannot perfectly be explained, yet who is still as compelling as Jayne is.
But, in case you forgot from the description of this book, there's a small problem: June has cancer. And I won't say too much about all this, except both that her illness is treated with immense compassion and care on Choi's part—so many beautiful scenes are coming to mind right now—and also that her cancer is never the entire point of the story. Rather, it's a catalyst for Jayne and June's relationship to change—and also a ridiculous stroke of bad luck that doesn't come with a reason at all, like all bad things (another quote from p. 40: "What's the point? The planet is on fire and everything is random."). What I will note before moving on is that, throughout it all, Jayne and June's relationship bends and flexes and almost breaks, but they cannot escape the fact that they are siblings, and they will be linked no matter how much they do wrong.
And it's a good thing Jayne and June kinda-sorta-maybe-sometimes have each other, because they've got plenty of other issues to deal with—yes, even besides the cancer. The sisters' childhood skirts a delicate line between normal and what-in-the-world-is-going-on-with-those-kids, and Choi delicately and tactfully doles out the details of how Jayne and June ended up where they are—the presence of their parents at certain points in the story definitely helps fill in some of those gaps. And there's another issue too, one that also doesn't dominate the story but is definitely there, quietly building in the background—Jayne's mental health issues. Jayne is smart enough to see a counselor, but that doesn't mean she's ready to talk about what's going on, even as it interferes with her life in ways that grow from small to large. I'll say that, though I don't grapple with the specific mental health issues Jayne does, I can so clearly see why she falls into the traps she falls into, both because I have experience with other mental health troubles, and because Choi is genuinely able to get inside Jayne's mind and rationally explain the most irrational tendencies of our brains. There's one particular scene that tackles these issues head-on in such a beautiful, cathartic way that I can't wait for you to read it.
And now for a few more stray notes before I call this review complete. The vast majority of Yolk takes place in New York City, and as someone whose favorite book takes place in a relatively positive depiction of NYC, it is fascinating seeing the more two-sided depiction of the city in this book—parts of this city make Jayne feel completely at home, parts of it just make everything worse, and she also acknowledges how two people can have completely different experiences of such a big city (oh yes, it's quote time again, this one from p. 15: "I never get to be this high up, and it's wild how June's New York has nothing to do with mine. Sort of how some people's news is the opposite of yours or how their phone configurations are alien even if the icons are the same. Part of me is proud that she gets to have all this—knowing that we come from the same place and that she's earned it. Another part of me wonders if she's secretly Republican."). Two more quick notes: one is that I somehow got through this entire review without discussing the romance in this book that ensues now that Jayne is free of the awful Jeremy. I don't read a lot of YA romance because I don't tend to like it much, so I am thrilled to report that the romance in this book is so compelling and well-executed! And my final note is that the ending of this book is absolutely amazing and made me tear up twice (and I'm not much of a crier). It's so good.
After reading this book, I want to go find Mary H.K. Choi's other novels and listen to her podcast. Yolk is genuinely an almost flawless novel, and seeing true craft and wisdom like this in the YA realm makes me immensely joyful. With characters with rich inner worlds full of flaws and beauty, exploration of topics from physical and mental health to race to family relationships and love, and writing just dense enough to become absorbed in but just light enough to race through, this book has the potential to become a new favorite of mine, and I hope you all get the chance to try it and experience this funny, heart-wrenching, hopeful, one-of-a-kind novel.
My rating is: Stunning!