Thanks to its diary format, The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai is a conversational, knockabout book about a young woman straddling two worlds, both of which equally embrace and shun her. Lai visited Grab the Lapels back in August 2016 for the Meet the Writer feature. Check it out here!
Published by Shade Mountain Press in 2016, the full title of Lai’s work is Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu. It’s a mouthful, but the attention to self-help books drew me in. In fact, it’s a self-help book that suggested Marty use a diary, thus the book we read.
Marty is a woman in her late 20s living in New York City. She lived in Taiwan until she was five and then moved to the States. Her mother is also in NYC. Dreaming of becoming the owner of a costume shop, populated with costumes she’s designed and made herself, Marty meanwhile works selling advertisements in a magazine with an aging readership. She’s on the verge of closing such a great deal that would set her up with enough money to quit and buy that shop, but Marty is a woman after Bridget Jones and messes up royally. She’s fired immediately and taken to Taiwan by her mother in an attempt to give her space from her shame, or possibly regroup.
At first, I really didn’t like that Marty was so Bridget Jones. “Done and dusted,” as MyBookJacket would say. There were even some cringe-worthy lines that were so twee. But after Marty is fired, something changes in her writing. She becomes more aggressive with her wording, and I found myself getting pumped to read her next diary entry. Marty reflects on why she is writing: “All self-help books say that writing shit down helps. I am hoping this is true. God knows I can’t possibly get any lower than I am now.” Her content got “real” and less *squee!* and this is when I was more prepared to read about her life.
Marty’s mom is a whole other mess, a woman so cold, so unforgiving, that my stomach and chest actually hurt when I read her words. Nothing makes her happy. Marty writes, “She feeds me soup, complaining that I’m too skinny (last week I was too fat; the week before I was too sickly) and that I probably drink too much.” It doesn’t matter what Marty does. The mother constantly tearing down a narrator we get to know so personally reeks of abuse. I kept thinking, “If we changed this mother with a lover, everyone would tell Marty to run, get away, call the police.” The mother believes she can control Marty. What a dark turn for a character in a book that can safely be called chick-lit. Then again, Yi Shun Lai writing the mother so convincingly is a credit to her craft.
Like many in 2017, Marty navigates two worlds. A citizen of both Taiwan and New York City, she speaks both languages and knows both cultures. Lai does a wonder job reminding readers when a character speaks in Taiwanese so the language isn’t neglected in favor of English. At one point in Taiwan, Marty makes air quotes when she speaks, noting “even though they don’t translate into Taiwanese.” In another example, Marty’s brother, who has always lived in Taiwan (there’s a whole backstory there), tries to give his kid sister some advice, struggling over the expression:
“You gonna keep on letting her hang the meat until the cat jumps so much it dies?”
I swear, Taiwanese idioms are so weird sometimes.
“Oh, Marty. What’s the American expression — apron strings?”
I really liked these moments when Lai reminded me that I was in Taiwan, and while she’s there, small cultural differences matter in communication. I felt both languages and cultures were respected.
Finally, the choice of diary. Of course we think Bridget Jones, so it’s a risk from the start. But Marty’s diary-keeping seems much more logical, and she processes her actions a great deal more than Jones. Questioning why she writes, Marty notes:
I’m not sure if writing all that down helped. Now it’s on paper, in black and white, and I have to admit it happened, and also admit that I don’t know why, or how to fix it. And, also, that it happens all the time.
While Bridget incessantly wants to fix or blame or wallow, Marty uses her words as tools, which makes the story that much stronger.
In some places, a diary format makes less sense, though. When she’s upset, Marty remembers that all self-help books suggest one take a moment to breathe. In reality, a person would stop writing in a diary and focus on breathing. Here’s where it gets awkward: Marty writes, “Might as well practice breathing breathing breathing. Oh for fuck’s sake. Never mind.” Did she actually breathe? Did she think about breathing and change her mind? The diary format confuses things here.
Overall, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu is a smarter chick-lit story that is more slice of life than looking for a happily-ever-after ending. If you’re looking for a light read about a modern woman navigating two worlds and an abusive mother, Yi Shun Lai’s book is for you. Yes, I know that sounds like an oxymoron.