[Review] Not A Self-Help Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu – by Yi Shun Lai

I have never read a self-help book myself, at least not all the way through, but I’ve heard that they’re a multi-billion dollar industry just in the U.S. alone. It seems Americans are willing to spend big money on self-improvement or ways to “fix” themselves. I can certainly see the appeal. Who doesn’t want to be the best version of themselves? Some people’s problems run too deep, however, and may need more than a couple of self-help books found in the Barnes & Noble bargain section. Marty Wu is someone with a complicated life who also sees the appeal of self-help books. In fact, this novel itself is a collection of diary entries that were motivated by a self-help book she found in the used-book section of a local bookstore. This book is called “The Language of Paying Attention to YOU,” which has a silly title, but has resonated profoundly with Marty Wu, as she constantly refers to the advice it offers.

When we meet Marty, we see that she has an ordinary life with a promising future. Her relationship with her mother, who is critical of everything Marty does, is far from perfect. But she has a decent advertising job at a magazine in Manhattan and is about to acquire a huge deal that will come with a large bonus check. If she manages to close this deal, she could use the money to open her own little costume shop and finally do something she’s passionate about. Even though Marty is successful in the world of sales and advertising, she is a vibrant and creative type. She needs a creative outlet to be personally and spiritually fulfilled. 

However, Marty’s trajectory to a fulfilling life will not be free of complications. In fact, whatever trajectory she was on is quickly derailed and perhaps entirely abandoned. This is because Marty disastrously sabotages her career early on in the novel and whatever dreams she may have had about a little costume shop are ostensibly destroyed. Seeing Marty ruin her career was one of the most memorable parts of the novel. I read on with wide eyes, often cringing and laughing. I will not giveaway what happens, but…poor Marty. 

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After her epic career failure, Marty flees New York and essentially hides from her problems in Taiwan with her family. It is at this point in the story that the novel shifts in tone entirely and elevates it from being more than just a novel about a young womanwho has a career meltdown and must fix herself and her life. Marty finds comfort in her native country, even if she left for New York when she was only a child. She learns to appreciate the simplicity of the life in the village and the stronger sense of community that comes with it. Her creative spirit is even rekindled during her visit to Taiwan when she meets a woman who runs a costume shop. But Marty manages to find drama that derails her even in Taiwan! The novel is given the subtitle, “The Misadventures of Marty Wu” for a reason. So expect new faces, new drama, and more life complications. 

It is during the trip to Taiwan that we see Marty’s relationship with her mother, referred to as Mama in the novel, take center stage. Before the trip, we got a taste of how strained and troubled their relationship was, but the plot mostly focused on Marty’s career, with a romance subplot for good measure. After the career misfire, the romance subplot is replaced with a complex mother-daughter relationship that is explored with nuance and care.

Their relationship is not a positive one. Mama is often incredibly cruel to Marty and seeing her repeatedly put Marty down can be heart-wrenching. You will learn to dislike Mama early on in the story. Her criticisms of Marty at face-value are excessively harsh and baffling. At times she felt like a caricature of a mean and stern Taiwanese mother, but as more layers to her character were revealed, especially towards the end, Mama made more sense as a person.

Final Thoughts

 

I enjoyed this book, especially the second half. I was initially put off by the informal, journal-entry narrative style, but eventually I got used to it because I grew to like Marty and her quirky voice. People who prefer a more formal, literary style may not easily take to Marty’s curt phrases & chatty voice. But I think it’s part of what makes the novel unique. The quick pacing, witty narration, and Marty’s fascinating life kept me riveted until the book’s conclusion, which was satisfying yet bittersweet. Marty doesn’t find easy answers to the problems in her life, but reading about her difficult journey to improve her life was a rewarding experience. 

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35 thoughts on “[Review] Not A Self-Help Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu – by Yi Shun Lai

  1. I’m not a big fan of self-help books. The ones that don’t pretend to have the answers are OK; but let’s face it – most of them pretend to have the answers.

    The idea of a character trying to use a self-help book to get through misadventures sounds quite fun though – and it sounds like you enjoyed it a lot! 🙂

  2. Thank you for this review. 🙂 This book sounds like it’s the perfect sort of read for me. I’ve been looking for some newer titles to add to my Asian Lit TBR and this is definitely going on that list. I love books that explore self-growth in one way or another, even more so when done with great storytelling and characters. Thanks for sharing this, Naz!

  3. I personally love epistolary novels, so this sounds right up my alley. I know it took you a while to adapt to the format, but let me know if you want other epistolary recommendations. For example, The Color Purple. Amazing.
    I think the exploration of mother/daughter relationships is underutilized in literature. These relationships are so important in society and yet rarely explored or expanded upon in the books I read. I obviously need to work a bit harder to find literature that suits me. Great review, Naz. 🙂

    1. I don’t mind epistolary novels, I have discovered, but have simply read so few. I’ve read The Diary of Anne Frank, of course. I heart Bridget Jones’s Diary is also one. Any more recommendations would be appreciated. 🙂
      I’ve read a few books this year that explore mother-daughter relationships and have thoroughly enjoyed both of them. I should read more of them!

      1. I strongly recommend The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society about the only British island occupied during WWII. I also adore Illuminae. Neither of these are particularly diverse, but the sequel to Illuminae, Gemina, features a character in a wheelchair.

    2. Try Lisa Yee 🙂 her stories are for young dults but they are in diary/ epistolary form. Two of the characters are Asian American and one just American. Millicent Min girl genius, Stanford Wong flunks big time and so totally Emily Ebers

    3. Epistolary is tricky, I agree! But I love reading it; absolutely adore that sensation you get that you’re in someone’s head and with them through their own process as they discover things about themselves…Thanks for this commentary, Jackie B!

  4. This sounds really interesting- I don’t really read self help books either, but like you said, I can see the appeal. And this one seems particularly good- the bit about her self-sabotaging has me intrigued! And I like the idea of it being chatty- I couldn’t stand a book like this taking itself seriously!

    1. I wouldn’t say it doesn’t take itself seriously. This book walks very fine line of being funny/light and also exploring some serious subjects. There are some dark moments in the story and Marty’s voice shifts in tone along with it. This book is really hard to pin down and I imagine other reviewers would interpret it differently than I have. But that’s what I like about it.

    1. I certainly haven’t read a book quite like this one! The plot is original, the characters are fascinating, the voice is quirky and memorable, and it’s emotionally draining in some parts. It’s really hard to pin down, actually!

    1. This book isn’t YA. I said it’s informal because Marty’s journal entries make up the entire book, and sometimes she’s frantic and writes in a stream-of-consciousness style that isn’t going to remind you Donna Tart or anything. But I really liked Marty’s voice and when she gets serious, she writes some really great stuff in that diary.

  5. Wonderful review, Naz! I’m not into self-help books but this title is awesome😁 I think following Marty on her adventures should be fun. Also I really, need to read more AsianAm lit!

  6. I have a ton of things to say about self-help books BUT – I love the idea of this book. More often than not, Asian family dynamics are very difficult to talk about sometimes or even conceptualize. It’s definitely a very multifaceted and complex thing that CANNOT be taken at face-value. So the more books that elucidate this, the better.
    Thank you for this wonderful review, Naz. I’m going to add this on my tbr, and I look forward to reading this. <3

    1. I don’t have a lot of experience with reading Asian family dynamics so a Taiwanese person may read Marty’s relationship with her mom very differently than I would and I understand that. I struggled with how her mom was portrayed at face-value and tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. Thankfully, layers to her character were unveiled later in the story, but there’s some heavy stuff between them, which I tried to read with an open mind.
      I hope you do get a chance to read it. It’s such a unique book with fascinating characters!

  7. I love the sound of this! And I’m a fan of the diary entry style. Now I’m curious to know about Marty’s misadventures… It sounds like the author packed a lot of good stuff into those 200 pages! (I love the cover, too.)

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