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Lucy and Linh
Lucy and Linh, in addition to being a quintessential coming-of-age story, is a novel about power, class, and racial microaggressions. It’s about the hard work of adjusting our sense of self when we land in an unfamiliar environment and it’s about finding peace through that process. Alice Pung delivers these themes in a package of well-paced narrative, lovely descriptive writing, and an earnest (although occasionally sardonic) voice.
If you can’t tell from that intro, Lucy and Linh is one of my favorite books of 2016 and a very strong contender for the Printz.
Lucy Lam is the first recipient of the “equal access” scholarship at Laurinda, an elite girls’ school. Her parents are Teochew Chinese who came to Australia from Vietnam when she was a baby. They live in Stanley where “…with those iron blinds lowered, the street looked like a long, continuous, dirty warehouse, all graffiti and concrete (4).” The novel follows Lucy’s first year at Laurinda, during which she loses a bit of her identity in trying to understand what her new peers and teachers expect from her. The evolution of her inner life is truly the backbone of the narrative, and the unusual cruelty of “the Cabinet” (three students who reign over the school, including the adults) adds to the main story as we see them through Lucy’s eyes.
Some scenes will feel familiar—Lucy goes to the school dance unsure of how dressy to be, only to find that the Cabinet is in full glam mode, while she’s far more modestly attired—but Lucy’s observations bring fresh light to the “fish-out-water” tale by exposing the microaggressions* that people of color encounter. She’s asked if she’s an exchange student and when her answer doesn’t fit with the expected response, the follow up question asks where she’s from. Many people of color, myself included, will have had some variation of this exchange once or multiple times in their life. Pung dramatizes this commonplace occurrence without making these incidents centerpiece events; microaggressions are “micro” because they aren’t bald-faced, racist comments. By showing these moments as they really occur—casually, at times when you’re not expecting to have to represent an entire race—Pung demonstrates the absurdity of implicit biases embedded in dominant cultures:
The Laurinda girls [did try], because they were ‘nice girls.’ But they all began from a distant and inoffensive place of extreme politeness, and the first thing they noticed was our differences. They didn’t understand that we were teenagers in the exact same way they were. I wasn’t suddenly an expert on the Moon Festival or the My Lai Massacre, just as they didn’t know about the history of the national anthem or the Dutch discovery of Australia before Captain Cook (208).
Lucy’s pragmatism and curiosity about people coupled with the letters she writes to Linh, give her the ability to look at these situations with the distance of an anthropologist, describing behaviors and comments that say, when considered together, people at Laurinda will always see her as different. In this way, Lucy and Linh is a powerful demonstration of the ways race and class affect an individual’s daily life.
—SPOILER alert: in order to discuss one of the highlights of this novel, I have to spoil it. If you’d like to remain unspoiled, skip the next three paragraphs. … You still here? Okay, you’ve been warned; let’s go.—
The first words of the novel are “Dear Linh” and within a page it’s clear that Lucy’s addressing a friend from her pre-Laurinda days. We never get to hear Linh’s voice, except through Lucy’s memory. It’s in those reminiscences and other remarks that the outline of Lucy and Linh’s relationship begins to take shape. Linh is Lucy’s fearless friend, the one who was vibrant, outspoken, and funny. She’s also the friend whose presence threatens to keep Lucy from fully integrating into the culture of Laurinda.
But she’s not actually Lucy’s friend. As we find out just before the book enters its last section, Linh is Lucy, more specifically she is Lucy before Laurinda. Her full name is Lucy Linh Lam and the letters are her diary, addressing the side of herself she’s trying to preserve as she navigates unfamiliar waters. In a lesser author’s hands, this reveal could have been unbearably saccharine and cheap; however, this isn’t a twist for shock value. The reveal comes exactly at the moment when Lucy must reconcile the two sides of herself in order to move forward. Throughout the school year, Lucy has struggled to figure out who she is when everyone in her new school sees her as “other.” Lucy and Linh merge for the reader just as she begins to figure out how to maintain her previous sense of self with the new person she needs to become in order to survive at Laurinda. It’s a lovely example of content and form mirroring each other.
The pairing of content and form is also evident in the use of second person narration. This is a notoriously tricky voice to execute competently but Pung makes it look easy because it’s a choice that makes sense given that the writer of the letters and the recipient are the same person. Lucy is shown to be a clever and keen observer of human behavior so it doesn’t take a huge leap to imagine that she’s the type of teen who would write a diary in a self-conscious voice.
—Spoiler-phobes, you can come back now!—
I’ve mostly avoided any discussion of the Cabinet because they’re not as interesting to me as Lucy and the thematic strengths of the novel, but it’s worth noting that although they could have been generic mean girls, Amber, Brodie, and Chelsea are given unique personalities and motivations. Seen through Lucy’s eyes, their relationship to each other and the power they wield over the school is terrifying but utterly convincing.
Most of the secondary and tertiary characters are similarly vivid. Alice Pung writes with specific descriptive words to create complete portraits of people and places. In Lucy’s first visit to Laurinda, the building, the furnishings, and Mrs. Grey are clearly visualized with the use of a well-placed details, colors being of particular importance. These tiny details build an entire world.
There’s a lot more to dig into with this one and that’s usually a good sign to me. On ALA YMA Monday you can be sure that I’ll be crossing my fingers and toes that the RealCommmittee feels the same way.
*For many people of color living in predominantly white communities, microaggressions are a fact of life. Some argue that the acknowledgment of microaggressions has a chilling effect on speech, and perhaps that’s true in some cases; however, being mindful of the implicit biases embedded in our culture and how they can emerge in our daily conversation is essential work that we should all engage in.
About Joy Piedmont
Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.
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