Book Review: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

…back in those days, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment so subpar that we woke up with flattened cockroaches in our bedsheets, sometimes three or four stuck on our elbows, and once I found fourteen of them pressed to my calves, and there was no beauty in shaking them off, though we strove for grace, swinging our arms in the air as if we were ballerinas.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang is a raw, unbounded look at the coming-of-age for minority girls in New York. The narrative focuses mainly on a Chinese American family and their relatives, friends and acquaintances. Zhang is uninhibited in her examination of what it means to be the daughter of immigrant parents; how that experience shapes your worldview and attempts to define your life.

“What makes you happy makes Mommy happy,” she would always say to me, sometimes in Chinese, which I wasn’t so good at, but I tried for her and for my father, and when I couldn’t, I would answer them in English, which I also wasn’t so good at, but it was understood that while I could still improve in either language, my parents could not, they were on a road to nowhere, the wall was right up against them, so it was up to me to get really good, it was up to me to shine and that scared me because I wanted to stay behind with them, I didn’t want to go any farther than they could go.

Written as a collection of short stories, the characters and experiences become so interwoven that it is almost unnecessary to tease them apart to find the separate beginning or ending. Throughout, we learn about the struggle of the parents to survive in America. Living with relatives ten to a bed, stealing and dumpster diving are just a few of the experiences that highlight their extreme poverty from which a sense of desperation, frugality and, surprisingly, hope is born.

I knew in the very fuzzy part of what I paid attention to that my parents had suffered, too, they had struggled, too, and whatever happened to them in the year before I was brought to America was somehow related to their refusal to ever order beverages at restaurants because paying an extra dollar or two for something they could get in bulk for cheaper activated some kind of trauma inside them.

However, for their daughter’s these sufferings are just a garish reminder of their otherness. They certainly love their parents, with a sense of obligation born of tradition, but they cannot help to reject them and to strive to be better, to do differently.

But now I wanted to be free. I wanted to be free to be selfish and self-destructive and indulgent like the white girls at the high school my parents worked so hard to get me into, and once they did, once we moved into a neighborhood where no one hung out on the streets, where everyone was the same pasty shade of consumptive blotchy paleness, all it did was make me want to get away from my family. I envied white girls whose relationships with their parents were so abysmal that they could never disappoint them. I wanted white parents who didn’t care where I went or what I did, parents who encouraged me to leave home instead of guilting me into staying their kid forever..

Zhang does an admirable job balancing this storyline with another important one. In what is likely to be her trademark style, she write scenes that are gritty and graphic, exploring the unbridled sexual maturity of girls. The urgency to know our body, to understand these changes is intensified by the pack like nature of their impoverished communities- the close proximity forces this development always into your field of vision.

I was actually looking forward to learning something, but all we ended up doing on the first day was sit around in a circle looking at diagrams of girls’ bodies at various stages of development from no boobs to tiny nubs to big fat round globes, and then somehow got into a long conversation about what sort of touch was appropriate and what was inappropriate. The whole thing was as foreign to me as a house free of Frangie. I mean, all touch was wonderful and the small amount I had experienced in my life was too precious to split off into categories of “wanted” and “unwanted.” And what if we wanted more touch? I felt like asking but never did.

As the story moves along, it becomes clear that the effort of life has embittered our narrators- souring their hearts to their past and the possibility of the future. In this honest debut, Zhang is not afraid to shock nor is she ashamed of the story Sour Heart is telling.

I want to move on, but to what? To where? Most days I can’t imagine a tomorrow until it’s already yesterday. Am I supposed to just keep waiting? Why did you create life? Is it so wrong to wish you had never made me or my mother or my father or their mothers and fathers and all the mothers and fathers who came before them? All I’ve ever known about any of them is how much pain they went through …and I’m just supposed to go through it too? Well, forgive me if I don’t fucking feel like it. If I don’t want to be a story my children rant about to their children when I’m dead. Forgive me. Fucking forgive me. Goodnight.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Random House- Lenny via Netgalley.

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