8Books Review: “Not a Self-Help Book” by Yi Shun Lai


Yi Shun Lai’s novel Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu delves into friendships, relationships, career crises, and how to deal with your mother. Written in a diary style, Marty Wu guides us through the ups and downs of her life. Working at an ad company in New York to pay the bills, Marty dreams of owning a small boutique costume shop. The problem? Her mother doesn’t seem to get her, support her, and it seems like her best friend doesn’t either.

Following the advice of different advice books picked up at shops around New York City, Marty takes to writing down her feelings and day-to-day “misadventures.” So the novel is written in diary form, from Marty’s perspective, full of emotion, feeling, diatribes, and the kinds of things you probably wouldn’t tell other people. Or at least, wouldn’t tell other people in full–be it a big screw up at work or your inner real feelings about your mother, brother, aunt, etc. So Marty isn’t always likable because she’s not perfect, occasionally bemoaning her own fate in dramatic fashion. But she is recognizable in her trek to figure out who she is and who she wants to be–not always a pretty project.

At the heart of the novel is Marty’s complicated relationship with her mother. Thinking about how her mother will respond to her and her choices frames Marty’s decisions, both consciously and unconsciously. And it shapes their blow out during a trip to visit family in Taiwan and all that follows. Uncoupling herself from her mother proves personally trying, but there is heart in this journey and in Marty’s process of figuring out how to deal in a way that is true to herself and her way of coping. Though at times Marty feels melodramatic and, at least to me, a bit annoying, but beyond all that, the unfolding process of dealing with her mother and those emotional pull is an honest look at difficult and trying relationships and what it means to be family.

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About Lily

East Coast Chinese American. I like thick-skinned dumplings and hard-covered books.
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