I am absolutely wrung out after reading Parachutes by Kelly Yang. I cried — which is a given considering the subject matter — a lot — which is not. Ms Yang crams into one book so many of the traumas that I’ve either endured or been adjacent to by virtue of being or having been a young woman, Southeast Asian, an immigrant, a debater, a fashionista, someone who hated the school she was sent away to, someone prejudged and dismissed as being either too rich or too poor, someone people feel safe confiding in. Ms Yang cuts through the protective mental gauze I’ve packed my wounds in with a thousand incisive, almost off-hand lines and moments in her narrative, until I felt as raw as I did each time I originally felt the blow. Yet as painful as the experience of reading Parachutes was, it was also cathartic, to be known and seen so vividly, to be empathized with. “All this,” she was saying, “happened to me and my friends, too. I survived and so did you and we are okay. We are a sisterhood and I have your back. I believe you and I believe in you.”
This powerful book revolves around the experiences of two young women thrown together against their wishes in a California high school. Dani de la Cruz is a Filipina-American scholarship student at American Prep, who helps her single mom with cleaning jobs to make ends meet. She’s a debating champ who’s pinned her hopes on attending an elite competition scouted by Yale. Getting into Yale would change her life, she believes, for the better. So when her debate coach, Mr Connelly, offers her some personal training, she jumps at the chance to learn more at the feet of the main father figure in her life.
Claire Wang is a rich Shanghainese teenager whose rebellious ideas on taking personal responsibility for the content of her exam essays — i.e. she refuses to parrot her tuition teacher’s sentences — land her in hot water. Her parents decide to send her to American Prep, but since neither wants to live in California, have her board with the de la Cruz family. A series of misunderstandings puts Claire and Dani at odds: Claire quickly falls in with the Crazy Rich Asians crowd while Dani’s response to Claire’s rich-girl obliviousness is to passive-aggressively seethe. And then they both start falling for the same boy.
If this was just the story of a rich girl-poor girl love triangle, it would already be pretty entertaining, but it’s also, for better or worse, a book on how hard it is for women to avoid being sexually assaulted and harassed. The tone of Parachutes is almost unbearably oppressive as we start to wonder which of these girls (Claire, Dani or their classmate Ming, to name just three) is the one who’s going to be subjected to the worst of the sexual violence, as they each endure increasing amounts of unwanted attention. In this sense, it is a hard book to read. I spent chapters hoping against hope that none of the girls would be raped, and am only glad that Ms Yang approached every single aspect of sexual trauma with sensitivity and grace.
Ms Yang also did an amazing job in depicting each character as a real person with real flaws and not just a cut-out. I think most people who know me would assume I identified more with Dani, and while we had loads of experiences in common, I was not down with her jealousy. I definitely shared more personality traits with “I have to do my own laundry?” Claire, but overall I felt very much as if each girl had been cleaved from parts of me. Which is why what happens to them hurt so much but was, in the end, doubly cathartic, as they vow to keep trying for justice.
I’d also like to note that I really appreciated that Ms Yang totally avoided the cliche of girl-on-girl betrayal in order to advance social position. It mattered a lot to see the themes of sisterhood affirmed — tho perhaps the lack of backstabbing in this case comes from the clique of likely suspects being Chinese, and less susceptible to American style mean-girl machinations (yeah, I’m looking at you, Dani!)
Parachutes is an amazing book written by one of the most talented authors writing today, IMO. Ms Yang’s debut novel Front Desk was a middle-grade masterpiece, and its sequel Three Keys comes out on the 15th! Is it possible for this novelist to come out with three five-star books in a row? I’ll hopefully find out sooner rather than later!