Thank you to William Morrow for sending me a copy of Yellowface in exchange for an honest review!
June Hayward knows nobody wants books about basic white girls. She and Athena Liu were in the same year at Yale, but while Athena rose to stardom, June’s debut novel didn’t even get a paperback release. They call each other friends, but June can’t help her jealousy. So when Athena dies in a freak accident, June acts on impulse and steals the manuscript for Athena’s next novel. The book, a story about the forced work done by Chinese laborers during World War I, is unfinished, so June takes it upon herself to complete the manuscript “as a writing exercise.”
June submits the completed novel to her agent as her own. Soon she’s rebranded as the ethnically ambiguous Juniper Song, skyrocketing to the top of every bestseller list. So what if she has to tell a few lies to get there? After all, shouldn’t lost histories get the chance to be told? But with fame comes attention, and Athena’s ghost haunts her at every turn. How far will June go to keep what she thinks she deserves?
Yellowface was incredibly different than what I expected. Blurbs describe it as a hilariously grim takedown of the publishing world, but it isn’t quite that. That’s not to say it doesn’t satirize issues in publishing. It is, after all, June’s publishing team that suggests she go by her middle name, Song, and play up her nomadic childhood to appear less white. June herself sums up white privilege in the publishing industry.
But Yellowface focuses more on the issues with people who consume books — the readers, reviewers and critics — and people like June. Numerous plot points focus on “haters” on Twitter and anonymous, gaslighting Instagram accounts. R.F. Kuang took an intense look at the horrible things people feel comfortable saying behind a computer screen and their effect on the people at the receiving end.
The novel opens with June’s jealousy of her so-called friend. June even says Athena only succeeded because publishers wanted an Asian American author to gain diversity points. She’s frustrating, self-absorbed and manipulative, and has an almost delusional ability to rationalize her actions. Her fear of her lies being discovered is intertwined with her anger at the critics who say she’s too white to write the book she did, making her a fascinating character to inhabit. Following her downward spiral and watching it all come crashing down is both uncomfortable and satisfying.
The best parts of Yellowface zero in on the toxic relationship between June and Athena, and I wish there was more of a focus on that throughout. Readers realize neither of them is a good person. Since she dies at the start, Athena is a hard character to grasp, but it’s clear their friendship isn’t healthy. While the world idolized Athena, readers learn even she wasn’t perfect.
This is not a subtle book. Kuang drew on her own experience in publishing, and it shows if you’re familiar with her story. Still, Yellowface is fast-paced and compulsively readable. It’s perfect for anyone who wants an eye-opening look at the dark side of publishing and social media.
Yellowface comes out on May 16 and is available from your local independent bookstore or Bookshop.org. Check it out, then let us know what you think!
TW: alcohol, binge eating, colonization, cultural appropriation, death, gaslighting, grief, panic attacks/disorder, racial slurs, racism, sexual assault, suicidal thoughts, toxic friendship, war, xenophobia
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