// Picture Us in a Better Book // Author: Kelly Loy Gilbert // Rating: 2/5
Synopsis: Danny Cheng has always known his parents have secrets. But when he discovers a taped-up box in his father’s closet filled with old letters and a file on a powerful Silicon Valley family, he realizes there’s much more to his family’s past than he ever imagined.
Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.
When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.
Alrighty then, here it is, Cade’s first ARC review, which was published on April 11th, but here we go!!
Annnnnd, ahem, cough, blargh… I did not like this book. At all. I feel like Piglet trying to stay above terrible metaphors and repetitive writing and oh d-d-d-dear will someone in this book please just say what they really mean to each other?
We have Daniel, a Chinese-American high school student, nervous about his acceptance to art school, feeling weighted down by his potential failure, especially since he hasn’t drawn anything in months. His friend group includes Harry, whom Daniel is in love with – although the narrative can barely spit it out – and Regina, Harry’s girlfriend, who seems awesome, but both Daniel’s internal thoughts about her and the narrative treat her rather poorly. Besides impending graduation fears and tepid stirrings of love or something like it, Danny also has to contend with his parents’ secrets, his father’s depression and his mother’s anxiety, a long-lost sister, and a friend who died by suicide. Phew, that is a lot to deal with, and a lot of it could be relatable, but I just couldn’t get past the writing style and Danny’s apparent lack of sympathy for those suffering around him.
Danny holds a lot of contempt for his father’s depression, and I can understand where Danny’s coming from. I’ve been on both sides of the equation and it can be frustrating and scary and difficult to know the right way to go about helping yourself and others. But a large part of healing is communication. And no one in this book ever talks to each other about these huge things they’re dealing with. Instead, for Danny, when he has thoughts like the following about his father and his depression:
It’s a profoundly lonely feeling when someone who’s supposed to love you doesn’t have it in them to be around you. Or You couldn’t blame him for it in case it sent him spiraling again.
it was a punch in the gut for me. These are valid and real feelings people have, but it would have been nice to see Danny grow or express these thoughts or try to work past them, but nope, the narrative never gives you that.
Instead, it throws you into confusingly long flashbacks, and dialogue that doesn’t feel real, and repetitive phrases willy-nilly. Every other sentence follows this pattern: “That feeling you get when you xyz… but maybe it’s not really like that metaphor, but more like this.” The pacing is fouled up with all those flashbacks to where it feels like the three plotlines – the fate of Danny’s sister, his repressed feelings for Harry, and Sandra’s suicide – were dartboard plot ideas the author hit on by chance, rather than a cohesive story.
I really didn’t see why any of these kids were friends, especially according to Danny’s internal dialogue. Here’s all the reasons why Sandra is awful, but it’s nice to know where you always stand with someone, so we’re friends. Harry is a snob and acts like he’s a gift to everyone, but I love his arms, and so I’ll die for him. Or at least trash his chances, maybe, of getting in to a school that would put him too far away from me. It’s one thing to have a flawed character, one that’s relatable or becomes relatable or is just a fully realized human being, but I did not get that with Danny. I got all of the informed character traits and informed character growth, pretty much all of it happening after the book’s cut to black, and not a lot that felt real.
This book raises so many important issues, but then has characters that will not say a damn thing to each other, until they’re backed into a narrative corner (Daniel’s mother finally revealing the truth). Also, avoiding the word “gay” or never having Danny express his feelings in any way but aborted sentences, just becomes awkward as hell. This phrase came up: “if he (Harry) isn’t as funny about you the way you want him to be” was just… not cool. Funny? Really? Word choice is important, but when the narrative chucks out all but a scant few in regards to a gay character, that’s disappointing.
The one good quote stood out all the more when surrounded by such sad baggage: Maybe it takes everything you have, every last atom, to sail past that dark idea, and then, on arrival, all you have to offer the world is your exhausted, battered self. But that’s everything. I would have loved more of this! More of realizing life is hard and we should be forgiving of ourselves and reach out to whoever joins us on our rocky shores. Instead, we get our main characters teasing Regina for years after she was the only second grader to be sent home for crying too hard when the class bunny ate all her babies. That’s just, damn Daniel, who are you people? Can I impulsively hug all of you? And then shake you a bit to just open up and feel something, anything, a little??
So, to recap, I had three huge issues with this book: the writing itself (repetitive and not very believable), the mishandling of all the big issues it tried to hold, and the lack of resolution. Anything good that happens to these characters is after the fact, and, um, I’m not sure I’d be up for reading more about them anyway.
Thank you to Disney Hyperion and Netgalley for the eARC in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes in this review may be different in the final publication.