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.
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.
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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