Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu
We are Here: Done! (Just in time for Mother’s Day.)
The debut novel of author Yi Shun Lai chronicles a few months in the life of a floundering young woman named Marty. A late-20-something mess in spiraling free-fall, Marty reluctantly allows her mother’s acerbic net to catch and redeposit her in Taiwan for a summer of familial intrigue, pseudo-redemption, and TEOSL.
Marty has spent her life trying, and often failing, to reconcile her mother’s expectations with her own wavering ambitions. The cognitive dissonance she experiences as an immigrant who considers herself more American than Taiwanese is likely what leads to Marty’s intense-yet-skeptical embrace of the self-help genre. Throughout her diary, she references the programs of several self-help books, adopting and abandoning them at random in a harried effort to impose order on the chaos of her life.
We meet Marty in New York City and follow her to Las Vegas, where her life and career implode in projectile fashion. This is what causes the now former Sales Rep to sub-let her apartment and tag along with her mother to visit their family in Taiwan. While Marty has visited throughout her life, she hadn’t been planning to join her mother this time, so the abrupt removal from NYC creates a liminal space for Marty to assess her past and contemplate her future. All under the critical eye of her mother and the supportive network of her extended family.
Drama and introspection ensue. Revelations are stumbled into, elided, rescinded, and revised. Career paths are flirted with and abandoned. Relationships are mended and destroyed, not always in that order. Through it all, Marty pursues (intentionally or not) the mystery of her mother, a relationships that can most generously be described as “fraught.”
Once in Taiwan, the book meanders, but this may be a function of its structure as a series of diary entries. Marty’s rambling adventures are also a reflection of her tumultuous inner state. Funny and gut-wrenching, Marty shares her thoughts and feelings about what has happened to her (and what she hath wrought) through her diary, and becomes both reliable and unreliable as a representative of herself.
[POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD]
The emotional climax of the novel, while externally boisterous, is internally subdued. Marty’s realization that she doesn’t understand her mother as well as she thought she did marks the beginning of what will likely be a constantly evolving relationship, rather than its resolution. This is, perhaps, the most deceptively understated emotional truth of the book, one that is made powerful by its open-ended nature.
However confused she might be and as dire as things become, Marty’s voice remains strong throughout the novel, shifting in tone to match the story’s many detours (as well as her levels of intoxication). Exploring family dynamics, mental health, millennial un-mooring, cultural difference, and generational misunderstandings, Not a Self-Help Book gives voice to a generation of immigrants caught amidst multiple ways of being in the world. By diary’s end, Marty is still learning who she is and what she wants to do in life. But she is finally able to embrace, rather than resent, the fact that her relationship with her mother is at its center.
Drunk-Marty’s diary entries are a delight.
Hungover-Marty’s entries are viscerally upsetting. If you’ve ever regretted a night of partying, you will feel her pain.
I couldn’t quite get a handle on how Marty really felt about her “best friend,” Jody. (Imagine those scare-quotes have itty-bitty question marks beside them.)
There are several subplots not mentioned above, all of them dealing with Marty’s relationships with friends, family members, and lovers. Her relationship with her brother is especially interesting.
The kids in Marty’s TESOL class are a kick and I wish we’d spent more time with them.
Why is this book better than people?
This book helps you appreciate any healthy relationships you have with real people. It offers an escape into a particularly chaotic part of someone else’s life, which is easy to identify with but likely not representative of the specific chaos of your own. Fictional disaster-tourism will always outrank the real-life disaster of having to talk with a neighbor you were planning to avoid.
I am casually acquainted with the author. Make of that what you will.