The year is already 1/4 over, which sounds fake, but here we are. My most recent read and the book being featured on my blog today is Love and Other Moods. When I saw that Love and Other Moods was New Adult and by a Taiwanese American author I hit the sign up so fast. There aren’t a ton of books by Taiwanese Americans in general, let alone NA, so I was pretty excited. YA is great, but I’m 28 now and having characters my age is nice. I’m reviewing this book as a part of the Bookstagram tour hosted by Colored Pages. You can check out the #LoveAndOtherMoodsTour tag on IG to see the other stops on the tour as well as enter the tour giveaway. You can see my Bookstagram post with my pictures of the book there as well.
Title: Love and Other Moods
Author: Crystal Z. Lee
Publisher: Balestier Press
Publication Date: December 10, 2020
Genres: New Adult
Naomi Kita-Fan uproots her life from New York to China when her fiancé’s company transfers him to Shanghai. After a disastrous turn of events, Naomi finds herself with no job, no boyfriend, and nowhere to live in a foreign country.
Amidst the backdrop of Shanghai welcoming millions of workers and visitors to the 2010 World Expo, we meet a tapestry of characters through Naomi: Joss Kong, a Shanghai socialite who leads an enviable life, but must harbor the secrets of her husband, Tay Kai Tang. Logan Hayden, a womanizing restaurateur looking for love in all the wrong places. Pan Jinsung and Ouyang Zhangjie, a silver-aged couple struggling with adapting to the ever-changing faces of their city. Dante Ouyang, who had just returned to China after spending years overseas, must choose between being filial and being in love. All their dreams and aspirations interweave within the sprawling web of Shanghai.
Right off the bat the prologue establishes the context for the story with a first person plural narration, a choir of voices speaking their truths: these are diaspora kids who grew up across the globe settling down in Shanghai, a city of contradictions and possibilities. The histories that shaped these characters and this city, which is a character in its own right, are laid out.
The story begins with a wedding and a breakup that precipitate the remainder of the story. Naomi, who is mixed Japanese and Taiwanese American, breaks things off with her fiance Seth and must figure out how to survive in Shanghai alone. Naomi’s friend Joss marries Tay, not realizing that their married life will take a departure from the usual script for their culture.
The primary focal character is Naomi, who undergoes the most change and development throughout the story. However, the other characters do get chapters from their point of view, giving the reader a glimpse of their subjective worlds. These characters are flawed and real, each carrying their own burdens and weaknesses that bring tension to and drive the story. Although some aspects of the plot feels plucked from Asian dramas, the conflicts are genuine and realistic; the detail and texture of the story lend it substance and nuance.
Setting in the story during the 2010 World Expo underlines the major themes of the book: the rise of China on the world stage, the increasingly interconnectedness of human activity across the globe, and the tensions of ethnic/nationalistic chauvinism and how heavy histories in world history inform the lives of everyone on an interpersonal level. The story would be quite different if it were set in a different time and place.
One of the fun parts of reading this book was that a lot of the pop culture references were familiar to me. The mandopop singers that were name-dropped made me feel Seen as a diaspora kid who often consumed more media from the homeland than from the U.S. Ironically, Naomi doesn’t know who most of these people are at the beginning of the story because she grew up pretty disconnected from that part of her heritage. She slowly picks up the culture as she spends more time immersed in the Shanghainese, Chinese environment.
Another extremely recognizable part of the story was the fragility of the Chinese government’s ego when it comes to “sensitive” and “controversial” topics such as Taiwanese and Tibetan independence, border disputes with India, etc. Naomi goes through several incidents at work where sponsorships or products are dropped due to the celebrity representative or corporation involved expressing or potentially appearing to dispute the Chinese government’s claims over certain places. This is completely true to real life and a familiar part of my own experiences of growing up in a Taiwanese household where cross-strait politics were a central topic.
Overall, I enjoyed the story and found it compelling. That said, there were definitely some aspects that detracted from my enjoyment. The first was the cis/allo/heteronormativity. None of the major characters are queer, and there was only a token mention of queerness with a minor lesbian character who showed up only once (if I recall correctly). The framing of the relationships and experiences of attraction were all otherwise very cis/straight/allo. That made the story somewhat difficult to relate to as a queer and trans and aroace-spec reader because the characters were following the usual nonqueer people script of getting married and having children and settling down in their late 20s.
The second thing that bothered me was the ableism. There was some casual ableist language in the writing in places, and then there was a particular plotline (can’t disclose details because of spoilers) where ableism was really pronounced and I was super uncomfortable.
The last thing was the way language was handled. I’m not sure how much of it was the author’s stylistic choice, or pressure from the editor/publisher/industry to cater to a monolingual English-speaking audience, or what, but the way Mandarin was integrated into the story felt really heavy-handed and at points very redundant to me. There was some over-explaining of Mandarin terms. I was somewhat forgiving of that.
What really stood out to me was a scene where a bunch of foods in a list: “mustard greens jie cai sauteed with tofu skin, golden chun juan spring rolls, duck blood ya xie soup with vermicelli, white cut chicken, sticky nian gao rice cakes…” and so on. If you translate the romanized Mandarin, it reads as “mustard greens mustard greens sauteed with tofu skin, golden spring rolls spring rolls, duck blood duck blood with vermicelli, white cut chicken, sticky rice cakes rice cakes.” As a multilingual reader who speaks Mandarin, this just came off as really grating and unnecessary, and I wished the author could have just stuck to using one language throughout the whole list or having a mix of the two languages but picking one language to name each item to avoid the redundancy. Of course, this is just my opinion, other bi-/multilingual readers may not mind, and those who don’t know Mandarin/Chinese may not even notice or care. The author is herself bilingual so I don’t intend to invalidate her experiences, but that’s just how I personally reacted to it.
Content/Trigger Warnings: sexual harassment/assault, cheating, racism, misogyny, ableism, death of parents
About the Author:
Crystal Z. Lee is a Taiwanese American bilingual writer and a member of the Asian Authors Alliance. She has called many places home, including Taipei, New York, Shanghai, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She was formerly a public relations executive who had worked with brands in the fashion, beauty, technology, and automotive industries. Love and Other Moods is her first New Adult novel. Her debut children’s book is forthcoming in 2021.