Genre: Young Adult / Coming of Age
Aiko Cassidy is fourteen and lives with her sculptor mother in a small Midwestern town. For most of her young life Aiko, who has cerebral palsy, has been her mother's muse. But now, she no longer wants to pose for the sculptures that have made her mother famous and have put food on the table. Aiko works hard on her own dream of becoming a great manga artist with a secret identity.
When Aiko's mother invites her to Paris for a major exhibition of her work, Aiko at first resists. She'd much rather go to Japan, Manga Capital of the World, where she might be able to finally meet her father, the indigo farmer. When she gets to France, however, a hot waiter with a passion for manga and an interest in Aiko makes her wonder if being invisible is such a great thing after all. And a side trip to Lourdes, ridiculous as it seems to her, might just change her life.
The story won the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award in Fiction and was included in an anthology of the best stories published in Cicada over the past ten years.
I don't normally read books aimed at the younger YA audience, but while we were at the library my one year old picked this off the shelf and wouldn't be parted with it. I can't blame her; that's one lovely cover. Yes, I know, don't judge a book by its cover, and all that. But we all do now and then, so I might as well own up. At any rate, I read the synopsis and while I'm not a fan of whirlwind romances in Paris (seriously? at fourteen?), I decided to give this novel a shot--because not only do I like to read books with a multicultural aspect, but this book also features a heroine with a disability, which is far too unusual to pass up.
Aiko has a lot to contend with in this novel. Cerebral palsy has left her with a serious limp and her left hand curled into "a claw." She lives with her mother, a sculptor, who uses Aiko as her muse--something Aiko has mixed feelings about. Further, Aiko's father purportedly knows nothing of her existence, and she wants nothing more than to meet him and make him proud. He's an indigo farmer in Japan, so throughout the story we hear about Aiko's attempt to nurture a single indigo plant in their home in Michigan. These storylines: her disability, her relationship with her mother and her mother's art, and her missing father, develop over the course of the story, taking turns, making leaps, and--eventually--bringing Aiko to a single, cathartic moment. This is the meat of the story, so to speak, and I was profoundly impressed at the depth of the storylines, and with Aiko's final development at the end (especially because I had my doubts along the way).
Aiko is also a manga artist, though her stories sounded...superficial at best. They so very clearly reflected herself and the people around her, as well as her own pent up desires, it made me wonder if she really had much of an imagination. Per her descriptions, until her trip to Paris, they all had essentially the same storyline of Gadget Girl saving her crush from some dangerous situation. I don't think Kamata intended for Aiko's art to sound so shallow, but as a writer myself, I was surprised that Kamata didn't endow Aiko with an ability to imagine more for her characters to begin with. That said, following Aiko's trip to Paris...Gadget Girl develops slightly, though it is still very grounded in real people and experiences. I kind of wanted to see Aiko's work take off, unfettered by her tendency to tie her characters and their stories to real people. But that's just me.
I found myself grinding my teeth at Aiko's actions a few times, from some of the things she says to her mother, to her tendency to sound whiny. She was also a bit--naive? Her obsession with going to Lourdes to see if she could be healed struck me as strange as best. I understood what it represented, but I didn't quite believe it for Aiko. So, between Lourdes and her regularly childish behavior, I began to wonder if she could redeem herself by the end of the story--but, in fact, she does. I chalk my frustration up to not normally reading books aimed at the younger spectrum of YA; no doubt, this is very well-suited to her age and traditional readership.
I loved the more complex understanding she developed of her relationship with both her mother and father. I was a bit taken aback by her mother's choice to share the truth about Aiko's father on Aiko's birthday--as a mother, I went, what? If you think your daughter's old enough, then let her celebrate her birthday one day, and tell her the next. But I guess it was more dramatic this way. How Aiko handled this information over the next few weeks was both realistic and telling of her development over the course of the novel, and wonderfully done.
By far my favorite character was Raoul, Aiko's mother's boyfriend: radio DJ of international music, gourmet cook, and a man both caring and sensitive. I looked forward to his scenes, and was sorry he didn't feature more. While I liked Aiko, I felt somewhat emotionally distant from her, and was not as engaged as I would have liked. Again, this may have to do with her slightly younger age. I expect young readers will connect more easily (especially over Aiko's crushing on boys!).
Overall, an engaging and quick read with a lot packed in.
About the reviewer:
Intisar Khanani is the author of Thorn and The Sunbolt Chronicles. A YA fantasy enthusiast, she spends her free time reading and writing as much as possible. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and two young daughters.