Also by this author: American Panda
Published by Simon Pulse on October 15, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
Pages: 320 •Format: E-ARC •Source: NetGalley
Seventeen-year-old Ali Chu knows that as the only Asian person at her school in middle-of-nowhere Indiana, she must be bland as white toast to survive. This means swapping her congee lunch for PB&Js, ignoring the clueless racism from her classmates and teachers, and keeping her mouth shut when people wrongly call her Allie instead of her actual name, Ah-lee, after the mountain in Taiwan.
Her autopilot existence is disrupted when she finds out that Chase Yu, the new kid in school, is also Taiwanese. Despite some initial resistance due to the they belong together whispers, Ali and Chase soon spark a chemistry rooted in competitive martial arts, joking in two languages, and, most importantly, pushing back against the discrimination they face.
But when Ali’s mom finds out about the relationship, she forces Ali to end it. As Ali covertly digs into the why behind her mother’s disapproval, she uncovers secrets about her family and Chase that force her to question everything she thought she knew about life, love, and her unknowable future.
Snippets of a love story from nineteenth-century China (a retelling of the Chinese folktale The Butterfly Lovers) are interspersed with Ali’s narrative and intertwined with her fate.
American Panda was quite possibly my favorite contemporary book of 2018. It had everything I love in an upper YA contemporary: college setting, diversity, the exploration of family relationships, adorable chapter art etc. It was something so fresh and different feeling from many of the YA contemporary options available, even with today’s booming YA market. I therefore went into Gloria Chao’s sophomore novel, Our Wayward Fate, with absolutely no doubts that I would enjoy it. Much to my surprise, while Our Wayward Fate did share a few thematic elements with American Panda (straddling two cultures, strained family relationships) it unfortunately did not resonate with me in the same way that it’s predecessor did.
Set in a small, Midwestern town with little diversity, the novel follows Ali Chu who is trying to survive a high school filled with casual racism, a living environment permeated with resentment, and her own struggles with her cultural identity. Our Wayward Fate felt darker in tone to me than American Panda, as the high school setting felt more oppressive and less diverse than Mei’s time in MIT in Chao’s first novel. I applaud Chao for writing such visceral examples of the discrimination that Ali has absorbed and almost become numb to at the beginning of the novel because it’s honestly a bit shocking but helps ground the reader in Ali’s reality. She does not live in a urban and diverse area, she does not have a support system she can rely on, and her approach to survival is unfortunately blending in as much as she can. As difficult as Ali’s story was to read sometimes, it’s an important one to be depicted.
Though I appreciated Ali’s journey in the story and some of the thematic elements, unfortunately the story did not flow well for me. The multiple timelines were jarring and felt out of place as suddenly Ali’s story is interrupted with flashbacks several centuries ago to some of her ancestors that eventually became a myth that plays a role in the modern superstitions her family holds. While I understand the intention of including this, it felt forced and random and didn’t make for a cohesive reading experience (I feel like I would not have been missing anything had these chapters not been included). It also led to some confusion and at times I feel like I had a hard time keeping the plot straight.
Additionally, though I appreciated Ali’s struggles I didn’t like her as a character (which is totally fine, I don’t expect to like all protagonists!) She was angry and bitter which was totally understandable, but was didn’t sit well with me was how immature she was and the humor was a bit to crass for my personal taste at times as well. Even the way she acted with Chase (the love interest) irritated me at times, though I do see how she grew throughout the novel. Speaking of the romance (which I will admit was necessary to the way the narrative was constructed) it felt rather insta-lovey to me. I did like how she initially fought and acknowledged her apprehension to dating Chase and the reasons behind it (not wanting to date someone she thought her mother would approve of, not wanting to be seemingly “predictable” to the kids at school who would expect the only two Asian-American students to date, etc). I also like how Chase pushed Ali to confront the horrible treatment she had grown numb to by her peers and start to “care” again and take pride in herself and her culture. Overall, the romance wasn’t terrible but it did start a bit too quickly for my taste.
The very end of the book did pick up for me, as Ali confronts her parents about some seriously not-OK family secrets she discovers throughout the course of the book and while all is not resolved, they do seem to be heading down a tentative path of reconciliation. I do appreciate that Ali’s family is not “fixed” in this novel, but rather it’s about exploring how things got so bad with the Chus and how they can try to move forward. It’s realistic without making too many promises.
Overall: There are some important themes in Our Wayward Fate I enjoyed, but ultimately the jarring jump between different timelines and immaturity of some of the characters prevented me from enjoying it as much as I hoped. I am still fully confident, however, that Gloria Chao is a brilliant writer who is bringing a unique perspective to the YA contemporary world and look forward to reading her future novels.