Book Reviews

From Little Tokyo, With Love by Sarah Kuhn

From Little Tokyo, With Love is a modern day, urban, feminist Cinderella meets nure-onna. It is a YA featuring a biracial girl with a ‘kaiju temper’ who prefers monsters to princesses and I am totally here for it.

Riki is the daughter of a Japanese-American woman who died in childbirth. Her father, who abandoned Riki’s mother when she found out she was pregnant, was White. Riki is being raised by her Japanese-American aunts, alongside her sisters (technically her cousins as they are the auntie’s children, but they are raised as siblings together from the time that Riki is born). The Aunts run a restaurant in Little Tokyo, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. The family’s Japanese heritage is a central part of their lives, but Rika never feels like she fits in and struggles to control her temper and not “create scenes” that she thinks might embarrass the family.

Rika scoffs at her siblings’ fascination with princesses and happy endings. Then she finds out that her mother might be a movie star who is very much alive. She also meets Henry Chen, a Filipino-Chinese actor who offers to help her meet her mom, a quest that takes them all over L.A.. Soon her sisters are also helping her, as are other members of ‘Asian Hollywood’. Events involve interesting locations, passionate kisses, Japanese folklore, a sparkly dress and a very cool T-shirt, an enormous amount of truly amazing food, messy hair, judo, and the dizzy awkwardness of first love.

This book has a lovely sense of place, with every location, every outfit, and every meal serving a purpose beyond sight-seeing. It made me want to visit Los Angeles, which is quite an accomplishment. It also made me want to eat SO MUCH FOOD, you guys, oh my God. Rika’s aunties own a restaurant that apparently rolls every conceivable food item in panko and then fries it, which…yes, please.

I adored the main character, Rika, and I found it painful to read about the racism and hate that she experiences. Even more painful was the amount of guilt and fear she feels for things beyond her control – her illegitimacy, her fear of not being a true part of the family or the Little Tokyo community, her constant attempts to silence her passionate spirit, attempts which never work out as the nure-onna within inevitably emerges (not literally – this is not a paranormal).  Issues touched on include prejudice against Asians and people who are Bi-racial, especially in Hollywood (Rika meeting the members of the Asian Hollywood group is a highlight of the book). The book also addresses the universality of not feeling wholly seen and accepted.

Happily, this book involves an enormous amount of catharsis and validation. I appreciated the way this book celebrated the community of Little Tokyo while also calling out some of that community’s problematic elements, most notably the shaming of unwed mothers and prejudice against bi-racial people. I also appreciated the framing of adults as people and the framing of Rika’s anger as the result of repressing her passionate nature. The book is intensely liberating while still validating the nurturing aspects of Rika’s heritage and her relationships with her family and community.

In terms of romance, we all know where things are headed, and everything unfolds in a lovely rom-com/fairytale movie style. I appreciated that Henry is a well-developed character with his own needs and insecurities (not always a given in a book that is primarily about the heroine’s growth). He and Rika support one another and bring out the best in each other in a way that transcends their chemistry and cuteness. They enjoy being around each other, they laugh a lot, and they help one another grow. You can’t ask for more in a relationship.

The only thing holding this book back is that towards the end it gets a bit didactic. This is a very cinematic book and the climax of the book is old movie style, with a lot of people in a semi-public place making speeches, revealing secrets, and calling out the villain. It’s a little on the nose. A line like “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!” or “Hey, I’ve got an idea! Let’s put on a show in the old barn!” would not be out of place. Whether you find this to be a feature or a bug is up to you.

Aside from the slightly clunky ending, I adored this book and its celebration of a messy and passionate heroine. The sense of place, the humor, the charming romance, and the ensemble of characters, along with a great protagonist, make this book a great read.

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