Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin.
But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.
THIS.BOOK. Where do I even begin.
Though not immediately obvious, and maybe not exactly the “central theme”, Starfish celebrates beauty – of self-acceptance, art and expression. And it does all of this by shredding the notion of “ideal standards” of beauty itself.
This book is about Kiko’s journey of realizing this. Which is kind of hard when she isnt just reminded of her “undesirability” as a high-school girlfriend due to being biracial (“I am not into Asian girls”), but is also subjected to emotional abuse on a daily basis at home – by her mom. Ohhhh, her mom… Gosh … She must be the most repulsive fictional mom I have read in recent times. Like seriously, I don’t think I have ever read a book where the MC faces racism in their home by their mom. EVERY SINGLE DAY.
For Kiko, art represents a chance at another life, a new beginning. At a new, prestigious art school in a city where nobody knows her or cares that she is Asian. Where, she can maybe be more at ease in making conversations with other artists – and where her anxiety doesn’t limit her as much as it does in her current situation.. With her mom serving as a constant trigger.
Now, there isn’t always an “origin” or “trigger” for SAD/GAD, but in this book, her mom does contribute a lot to it. Speaking of the rep, I loved how, FINALLY, a book tackles the very real pitfall of living with anxiety – fighting the feeling that the only “reason” you are with someone (be it a friend or a partner), is because that person is your crutch to get through some very “basic” tasks in your day-to-day living – like – you know – talking to people, or making choices between option A, B, C or D.
There is no miracle love cure for Kiko’s anxiety, but she does take some time off from Jamie – just to be sure that if she is going to be with him, it is because she chooses to, and so does he. And it has nothing to do with co-dependency.
Kiko embracing her Japanese heritage is pretty much what this book is built on. In contrast, we are also shown her relationship (or lack of) with her brothers. The three of them have their own way of dealing with their mom and dealing with being “half-Japanese”. They are pretty much inter-linked, as their mom’s abuse stems from the fact that she resents the way they look – their eyes, hair, skin – everything. As they look nothing like her – a Caucasian.
I loved the little moments where it looked like, maybe, just maybe, they would still keep in touch and make an effort to meet up even after they are busy “adulting”. But, Kiko is resolute about building a future where she would easily belong, much more than the present. And that is why, she is firm about not rooting her future among her dad or brothers – though she does love them.
The review wouldn’t be complete if I don’t mention the wonderful way in which this book showed the impact of good career mentors. Hiroshi Matsumoto, a celebrated Japanese-American artist shows Kiko that it is sometimes okay to get to the same goals with a Plan B. He also helps her re-evaluate her art, and recognize what is her best work, and pushes her to be fearless in infusing her history, culture and “her story” into her work.
When Kiko finally begins to accept her “imperfections”, it isn’t because she ever saw them as “ugly” but because she understands that it is sometimes important to live with them and persevere through them, so that she doesn’t miss out on all the nourishing experiences that make up what we call LIFE.
And that is why I loved this book. Because there is no attempt in making the readers feel that the only lives worth something meaningful is the ones inhabited with eternally happy, cheerful minds and confident selves.
My only issue with the book was probably with the vague insinuation thrown in that Kiko’s mom was trying to push off the reason for her behavior on some MI and well.. that was brushed off as another attempt at seeking attention and her being .. well.. her usual repugnant self. This ticked me off the wrong way, because it kind of just made it feel like she could be suffering from NPD. I mean, it was something just thrown in.. and honestly, I would have just preferred it if it wasn’t, because I was kind of left wondering, what if? Doesn’t somebody suffering from NPD deserve the same kind of empathy? As such, people with NPD get accusations like, “petty”, “attention-seeking”, “pessimistic”, and “killjoy” thrown at their faces all the time. So yes, I admit that, an invalidation of NPD in a book, especially since it tackles another MI so well, feels like a bit of a let-down in the end.
But, I loved the book as a whole. And I fell in love with the title after the beautiful way in which it featured in the book.
Definitely my favorite book this year.