Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies)
Justina Chen Headley
2006 (Little, Brown & Co.)
This is the story of Patty Ho and the summer after her freshman year of high school. Patty is half-Taiwanese and half-white, which causes her all manner of problems with identity and fitting in. Her community is small and nearly all white, so she and the few other Asian teenagers stick out a lot. But her biggest problem comes when a woman reads her fortune through her belly button and predicts that she will end up with a white guy, which sends her mother through the roof. She is shipped off to math camp at Stanford for the summer to meet a nice Taiwanese boy and stay out of trouble (or so her mother thinks). But of course, that isn’t what happens. She meets Jasmine, who teaches her that being Hapa (half-Asian) isn’t so bad and goes through the emotional roller coasters that are necessary for all teenagers at camp.
The first thing that struck me about this book was how fantastic the writing was. It’s absolutely phenomenal and draws you in. You can’t help laughing at the humor (of which there is a lot) and feeling exasperated right along with Patty at the ridiculousness of things that happen. One of the things I liked was that we always get enough context so that even though we see everything from Patty’s point of view, it is clear to the audience when she is being dumb (and sometimes she is). The “Mama Lecture Series” was one of my favorite parts of the book. It was her way of denoting when Patty’s mother had launched into a lecture that Patty heard over and over and the introduction was hysterical, something every kid (even non-Asian ones) will be able to relate to. One of the most difficult situations in the book was very early on, when a classmate literally spits on Patty after throwing a racial slur at her. Headley handled the situation perfectly. Every character reacted exactly the way real teenagers would – by standing there in shock as the bully laughs thinking he’s been brilliant. No one says or does anything because they are too surprised to do or say anything and once he drives off and the moment of shock passes, Patty just sinks knowing that there’s nothing she can do about it because of who he is (his mother is on the school board), so even if she reports it there will be no consequences. And she is frustrated. It was perfect. Absolutely perfect. You felt frustrated and angry and helpless right along with her.
The weakest parts of the book were the white girls Patty encounters. First there was her friend, who kept saying “that’s so Chinesey!” and generally was just very annoying. I was very happy when Patty left for camp and she was out of the picture. At Stanford, however, we are introduced to Katie, a spoiled rich brat who Patty calls “Malibu Barbie” and who, for all intents and purposes is Barbie. She had no depth at all, which really stood out next to the incredibly interesting Jasmine and Brian. She was a perfect stereotype and neither the author nor Patty ever made any attempt to go any deeper with her. She really had no depth. She was there to be hated and nothing else. Now, I’m ok with a character like that in many books, but this book was supposed to be about breaking through stereotypes. I was just a little bothered by the walking talking bitchy Barbie stereotype stomping through the middle of it distracting me from the otherwise very solid message-sending book.
The best part of this book was the focus on language and words. It was wonderfully subtle, but definitely present throughout the beginning and most of the middle. It wasn’t until maybe three-quarters of the way through that I figured out that labels and words had been the whole focus of the book all along. From the very first line Headley played with the way people label themselves and others, with a heavy focus on labels for Asians and partial-Asians. She did a great job of weaving that idea throughout with the exploration of the word Hapa and the labels Patty had for everyone from the “China Dolls” to herself. I even liked how she worked in the “naming lab”. It all worked together really well.
Overall I was quite impressed with this book. I wouldn’t say it was one of the best teen books I’ve read or anything, but it was definitely solid and had a lot going for it. It certainly had a lot more substance and more to think about than a lot of what is being offered for teen girls at the moment. Patty was a real, interesting character and I enjoyed reading about her. I would love to read more from Headley and look forward to seeing what she comes out with next as I think her work will only get better, and that bodes well! I do certainly recommend this book to anyone who thought it sounded at all interesting.