- Hardcover 350 pages
- Literary Fiction
June Hayward and Athena Liu have been ‘friends’ since college (loosely, anyway). The two authors have had varying degrees of success, with Athena’s work reaching critical acclaim and six figures, and June’s debut….flopping. So when Athena chokes and dies in her apartment, and June’s the only witness, she acts on an impulse and steals Athena’s latest manuscript—a wildly unedited saga about Chinese migrant workers in labor camps during World War I.
Athena’s death rocks June to her core, and she’s certain that the manuscript can’t just sit; it wouldn’t be right, would it? What about Athena’s legacy? What about all the work her friend put into this novel? But, once June starts reading, it becomes clear that there’s so much work to be done. So, June takes over and starts the editing process, writing in scenes that her friend may or may not have approved of (we’ll never know, because she’s dead), and then takes the whole thing to her agent and claims it as her own. After all, this piece of history should be told, no matter who the author is, right?
Except, when June Hayward is rebranded as ‘Juniper Song’ and her author photo features an ambiguous tan that makes readers question her ethnicity, it becomes clear that June can’t escape Athena’s shadow–and maybe she doesn’t deserve to.
Yellowface takes the question of June’s authorship and amplifies it, asking readers to contemplate how far the publishing industry will go to sell, and what level of cultural appropriation is acceptable (if any). R.F. Kuang tackles difficult topics like cyber bullying, suicidal ideation, and racism, all through the lens of a standard white woman as an unreliable narrator.
This review mentions suicidal topics, bullying, cultural appropriation, and depression.
Yellowface has such a unique premise and that’s what initially drew me to it–a fictional expose of the publishing world? Yes, please.
This novel is one of those few books that manages to make internal conflict nearly a full plotline, and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. Pretty much from the get-go, readers understand that June is an unreliable narrator. She’s stolen her friend’s manuscript, done whatever work she deems acceptable to it, and then slapped her name on it and handed it to her publisher. Ouch, right? Except there’s more.
From there, we learn that June is VERY white and her friend, Athena Liu, is Asian. So, to sell the manuscript, June’s publisher rebrands her as “Juniper Song” and takes an ethnically ambiguous author photograph for her book jacket. The problem with this might seem obvious to the reader, but apparently not to June.
As the plot in Yellowface progresses, June becomes a target of the AAPI writing community, and for good reason. Though, as people tend to do, the vitriol quickly gets out of hand and June receives death threats, cyber bullying, and some strange tweets that mess with her mental health. I’ll leave it at that to avoid too many spoilers.
As screwed up as some of (let’s be real….a lot of) this book is, I liked that it tackled important social issues while exposing the downfalls of the publishing industry. My experience with the publishing industry is limited to one interview at an acclaimed magazine that absolutely tore me to shreds when I showed up. I drove almost two hours to get there, hoping for a shot, and they were absolutely ruthless (Seriously. That’s a story for another day.). So, based on my limited experience, I would believe that what R.F. Kuang writes is true, even if it is exaggerated here for entertainment.
The other aspect of Yellowface I wanted to address is the ending. So, spoilers ahead.
In the final quarter of the book, an earlier character reappears and throws the plot into action. While the plotline has mostly been internally motivated up until this point, the arc suddenly changes, and Yellowface takes on a very thriller-y vibe.
First of all, the return of this character is SO obvious once the thriller path becomes apparent. I really wanted Kuang to take the thriller road all the way to the end, and flesh this out more. Why couldn’t the character be someone more unpredictable, like Daniella from the publishing house? or her agent? Why such a predictable turn?
Then, there’s the fact that June is considering suicide before meeting up with this character (I’m not going to say who to avoid major spoilers–but those that read it know). Because so much of the conflict in the plot is internalized, I’m really surprised that Kuang didn’t choose to turn the book here, with the ending becoming an expose that the reader has read the book from someone else’s perspective (like Candace, for example).
I felt like the ending of this book was just such an easy out. The novel was so well thought out, there’s so many social constructs that are tackled…why was the ending left like this? I don’t understand it, to be honest. It felt a bit like the author didn’t know how to wrap things up once the cultural appropriation issues were tackled, the villain needed to be apprehended, and no one was going to be able to win, so she just *whoosh* gave us a twist that we all saw coming.
I think Yellowface is going to be the book of the season. It’s definitely going to end up in the Goodreads Choice Awards for this year. The novel tackles some difficult topics, and exposing publishing through the lens of satire isn’t an easy thing to do–Kuang really writes this section of the book expertly.
However, I really just did not love how the book wrapped up. There were so many things that felt forced in the last quarter of the novel, especially compared to how nicely the rest of the book flowed. Readers seemed to have mixed feelings about the ending, and I’m curious to see comments from you all on your thoughts.
Interested in sharing? Here’s a few great book club questions by Book Club Chat that can help you start the conversation. Leave me a message below and let me know what you thought of Yellowface. Is it a book you would recommend? How did you feel about the twist ending?
If you enjoy satire, be sure to check out some of my other reviews, like Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead. This book is another great read with bits of humor, social commentary, and it’s short at under 300 pages.
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