Yellowface by R.F. Kuang is a captivating and, at times, horrific novel about a woman’s desperation for literary success.
It’s safe to say I’ve never read anything like Yellowface before. It also was not what I anticipated going in. I thought it would be more psychological thriller fiction, and it kind of is, but in a satire way. This book is full of so much truth, as hard as it is to grapple with, but it’s also quite bizarre in many ways and asks a lot of the reader.
It’s also extremely meta that Reese’s Book Club picked Yellowface for its July selection.
This is one of those novels that I’n not sure you can say if you like it or not, it’s the opposite of a joyful read but it’s quite compelling. The writing is strong and the topics are completely relevant. I can see this one generating much discussion.
What’s the Story About
June Hayward and Athena Liu are friends from college and both share huge literary aspirations. While Athena’s debut skyrockets to huge success, June’s novel barely has any sales. June is quite jealous of Athena’s success and believes she’s only the ‘it girl’ of the literary world due to her race.
When June witnesses Athena’s freakish death, she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers during World War I.
June edits Athena’s novel but summits to her agent as her own work. She lets the new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song—complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo.
But June can’t get away from Athena’s shadow, and emerging evidence threatens to bring June’s (stolen) success down around her.
We read the entire story from June’s perspective. So everything we learn about Athena and publishing as a whole is all filtered through her lens. It’s definitely an interesting approach, especially when you take into account the author of Yellowface, R.F. Kuang, is Chinese American and she’s writing the perspective of a white woman who is full of micro aggressions.
In doing so, R.F. Kuang shines the spotlight on the hypocrisy of the publishing industry. She takes real-life scandals such as the controversy of American Dirt and spins an engaging fictional narrative. There’s so much written in the novel that makes you cringe but also feels so real because a lot of it is based in fact.
I would have liked a little more about Athena, even maybe a prologue or epilogue (from the past) with her perspective. It was a little hard to get a read on Athena but I believe that was the point. And we just had to go along with June’s unreliable narrative road.
Success at All Costs
The mental gymnastics that June undertakes is quite remarkable. For instance, she refuses to feel guilty about taking Athena’s unfinished manuscript because she edits it and made it her own, or so she claims. She tries to tell herself that she’s doing Athena a favor. It’s rough being in June’s delusional perspective.
There’s some chilling scenes but the author does try to give her a bit more motivation than just simply jealousy. I’m not saying it makes what June does ok, it for sure doesn’t, but I do appreciate there’s a bit more context there.
What’s interesting when the manuscript is being edited by the publisher, they bring in a White savior character and takes out a lot of the more harsher, realistic components. Also, the publisher decision to change June’s name to Juniper Song—oh my God, the cringe. But it totally felt so realistic and again, be sure to read about the author behind American Dirt for context.
This is a unique, interesting and dynamic novel in so many ways. The novel covers, racism, cultural appropriation and social media. It really gets you thinking about so much including your own biases. I will say, I was a bit letdown with the climax and ending but I still think the novel is very much worth of read.
If you’re at all interested in publishing, definitely read it. It’s quick but will stick with you.
Check out my book club questions here.