Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Cloudwish by Fiona Wood

Title: Cloudwish
Author: Fiona Wood
Publisher: Poppy
Publication date: October 18, 2016
Rating: ★★★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

For Vân Uoc, fantasies fall into two categories: nourishing or pointless. Daydreaming about attending her own art opening? Nourishing. Daydreaming about Billy Gardiner, star of the rowing team who doesn't even know she's alive? Pointless.

So Vân Uoc tries to stick to her reality--keeping a low profile as a scholarship student at her prestigious Melbourne private school, managing her mother's PTSD from a traumatic emigration from Vietnam, and admiring Billy from afar. Until she makes a wish that inexplicably--possibly magically--comes true. Billy actually notices her. In fact, he seems to genuinely like her. But as they try to fit each other into their very different lives, Vân Uoc can't help but wonder why Billy has suddenly fallen for her. Is it the magic of first love, or is it magic from a well-timed wish that will eventually, inevitably, come to an end?

A million thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy. Cloudwish hooked me from the very beginning and did not disappoint.

While the story itself is compelling (give me the "girl and boy come from two different worlds and fall in love?" trope any day of the week... especially if mixed class or mixed race relationships are involved), I was most notably blown away by how personal it felt and how deeply I could relate to Vân Ûóc and her thoughts and feelings and experiences.

Let me be very clear: Vân Ǔóc and I come from two different backgrounds. I am Taiwanese-American with parents who immigrated to America out of their own free will. They went to college in Taiwan and were able to pursue further education when they moved to the States. They had NOTHING when they came here but they were not refugees by any means. In spite of our differences, I still understood Ván Ûóc as though I were reading my own diary.

Having grown up in a suburb filled with affluent white kids, I know the feeling of being an "other." I understand the social navigation, the responsibilities, trying to measure up and fit in, trying to keep school and home separate, the shame of being part of a different culture, and the guilt that comes from feeling ashamed at all...

But I also know what it's like to balance all of that with dreams. And expectations. I was the English-loving STEM student who spent her lunch hour in the art room working on mixed media pieces or in my sketchbook and tutoring kids who needed physics help after school. The premise behind my AP Studio Art portfolio? Head vs. heart. Home. Belonging. Choices. I applied to college as an engineering major. (And eventually transferred into the humanities.)

So I get it.

How refreshing to see a fragment of my own experiences reflected back at me. (How silly that such a small thing feels "refreshing"—for white readers, this is just a given.) But Ván Ûóc is smart and thoughtful and proud and insecure and observant and dedicated and driven and creative and reflective and funny and socially conscious and politically aware and practical and daydreamy and weird and a typical teenage girl and also not a typical teenage girl at all. She reminds me of myself at age 17. Kindred spirits. I can't help but think that if I had read this book back then, I would have been all the better for it. I could have learned a lot from a girl like Ván Ûóc when I was 17.

But back to the book itself. The story was charming, and the characters delightful and sincere and real. (I'm so glad Michael showed up again. He was my favorite in Wildlife, so I was pleased to see him still doing his thing. I also liked Billy Gardiner—he's kind of a lovable idiot who is courteous and means well and is very polite to parents but is self-assured and arrogant and maybe a little offensive and ignorant because he was born and raised privileged. He reminded me of some of the boys I knew in high school, whom I looked at in very much the same way that Ván Ûóc looks at Billy.)

The relationships are complex and varied—there's friends and then there's school friends, and first love, of course... But you also have a mother/daughter relationship that is riddled with the complexity of culture "clash" and additional baggage, and it makes the interactions feel that much more poignant and sweeping. And the writing was rich and clever—what a voice. It carried me through the pages and left me satisfied but also still wishing I could stay just a little longer.

Books that feature POC characters and are written by white authors can often go awry, but I thought this was done incredibly well. To me it really feels like the author did her due diligence in researching and speaking with many actual Vietnamese people—in other words, letting Ván Ûóc speak her story without it being muffled or slanted by white preconceptions. Does the story rely on certain stereotypes? Sure. But those stereotypes exist and are still relevant today, so I'm happy to see those stereotypes (and their effects/influences) as an important aspect—but not the main focus—of this story.

Anyway. This review has turned into one massive blog entry so I'll sign off here and just leave you with this: Cloudwish is easily my favorite Fiona Wood book by far. I feel blown away and want to flip back to the very beginning and reread it all again right away.

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