What would a mashup of Carrie Bradshaw, Madame Bovary, and Twiggy look like? Christina Chiu, author of Troublemaker & Other Saints, appears to have imagined such a character in her new novel, Beauty, winner of the James Alan McPherson Award. From watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s as a child, Amy Wong’s responsibilities tangle with her desire to be a famous designer—of clothes and of her own life. Each chapter marks a formative era in Amy’s life, progressing chronologically. With each intimate snapshot in the present tense, the reader is dropped into a new setting alongside a new, but familiar Amy.
Superficially, it would seem that she has it all. She is described as beautiful, and her design work is promising. Men can’t resist her. She even gets the fairytale wedding of her dreams—to a famous designer, no less. Her confident responses to her challengers are the kinds of things most of us think of too late. It is an heroic aspect of her character that is victorious to read, if occasionally incredible; I often found myself re-reading to check for dialogue quotations. Did she just say that out loud? Amy’s mouth sometimes gets her exactly what she wants (at least in the moment) and also betrays her. She is told repeatedly by men that she has the perfect body, often followed by some offensive comment about Asian women. “You Asian girls sure do look young,” says a particularly horrible man when she’s fifteen. When a famous fashion designer casually evokes Chinese stereotypes in her presence, Amy shuts him down, bucking normie-celebrity etiquette. And her response to that old gem, “You’re beautiful when you’re angry” is, “No, I’m beautiful, period.”
But while there are definitely moments when Amy’s life would seem enviable from the outside, we are also privy to the second-guessing, pain, and feelings of inadequacy that happen within her; “There’s no protective guard to shield me from myself. All the things I should have done. All the ways I’ve failed. Jeff and Ma are right. I’m a terrible mother.” For all her sharp-wittedness, she is constantly reminded that she is doing things wrong. This is where the choice of first person lends itself particularly well to glimpsing Amy’s true frame of mind. Perhaps due in part to trauma in her adolescence, Amy both craves intimacy and loathes the strictures family and lovers place on her. She struggles to balance her marriage with work, to weather criticism of her as a wife and then as a mother. She is plagued with guilt over leaving her child in her ex’s care while she tries to reenter her career. “What have I proved? I tried to rebuild my life, ‘allowing’ Jeff to take full responsibility for Alex. How selfish is that?” Even when she is forced to take on a full-time caretaker role, she feels she is not giving enough of herself. The question of selfishness—a frequent accusation from her own mother—tugs away at Amy’s natural drive for freedom, a very apt conflict with which many readers, especially mothers, are bound to identify.
Amy’s lust for beautiful objects mixes with her sexuality, and this, too, gets her in plenty of trouble. When trying on a pair of impossibly expensive boots, the sensuality of the boot is transferred to her body in one stroke:
“Bootman kneels. Slips the boot on. Then he leans in. One hand cups my calf, clasping the upper sides of the boot together. The other hand zips. The lace mesh makes it feel snug and sturdy while the lining reminds me of a silk slip. I hand him the other boot and he sets me up. He smoothes his hands up and down the backs of the boots, then slides them to the bare insides of my knees.”
Chiu has a talent for rendering the unique physicality of a sex scene. No two encounters are the same on the page, and many are rife with disappointment, pain, and horror. And yet, the language and pacing of the scenes are downright provocative. Amy finds that even when the red flags are waving in front of her face, she often can’t help herself. “How can something suck so bad, yet leave you wanting more?” a teenage Amy wonders. Years later, after a reckless and regretful encounter, “I’ve never felt uglier nor emptier. Nor more starved.”
Chiu evokes the bittersweet with blunt force. As a survivor of intimate partner violence, I found a few episodes difficult to read. The immediacy of the present tense combined with the intimacy of first person made these episodes especially vivid. But the dynamics of abuse, especially the why, are never straight-forward nor easy to explain. Chiu forges these moments with such raw clarity that I found this to be one of the strongest aspects of Beauty—how she weaves the seductive and repulsive within a scene or sentence. There is beauty here, in the viscerality of the language, the clipped sentences, Amy’s racing mind, the way she thinks, “I’m a wall, I tell myself. Just cold, hard brick. No emotions. No tears…Ice. I’m ice.” I felt intimately connected with Amy’s experience, emotionally and physically, as she experiences the pain of loving someone who hurts her, the pain that morphs and returns in a new form. Moreover, Amy’s persistence and willingness to love again made her even more of a heroine in my eyes. Some kinds of strength only come from adversity. It was this strength in Amy that I found particularly beautiful.
I consider the options at Chiu’s disposal for telling Amy’s story. Past tense would have read like a sluggish biography; depending on explicative narration, as opposed to leaning on dialogue as she tends to, would have slowed the reading pace as well. And yet, there were times I longed for more of Amy’s sharp observation: for example, when the dialogue felt especially banterous or slightly banal. That said, I was tickled by the sassiness of characters like her designer friend Ben, and the things her lovers say to her when they think they are being smooth. Chiu knows how a famous man speaks versus a restaurant manager, and how a teenage girl speaks versus a fifty year-old woman. And despite the time leaps between each chapter, Chiu’s deft maneuvering between dialogue and explication in her snappy prose never left me confused or meandering. The few flashbacks that occur within the narrative, even within a conversation, are clearly representative of the character’s tangential mindset and tendency to disassociate. I found myself racing to the next chapter to glean the resolution of the previous episode.
As Amy’s physical beauty develops, so does her insatiable drive towards an exceptional life. Her strongest emotions flash on the page and bring forth parts of herself that propel her toward her goals, when it would just be easier to sink. Amy is beautiful because, despite her constant self-interrogations, she believes in herself. And as she pushes on, this beauty evolves and expands, allowing her to pass it on to the next generation of women. Chiu has created a new heroine for both this time and that to come: a first-generation immigrant, a young woman who owns her sexuality, a devoted mother, and a talented businesswoman who discovers her own indestructable nature.
Juliana Converse is a fiction writer living in Baltimore City. A graduate of New York University’s Writers in Paris MFA program, she won first place in the 2014 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival’s Short Story Contest, and has been published on Hobart, BlazeVOX, The Compulsive Reader, and Heavy Feather Review. When not writing reviews, she is either working on her first novel or drilling her belly dance moves.