Review: Subway Girl by P.J. Converse

Title:  Subway Girl

Author:  P.J. Converse

Publisher:  Harper Teen

Series:  None

Other Reviews for This Author:  None

Sometimes, there are fabulous books that fall through every publishing crack possible once they are released.  You can't seem to find them on the shelves.  No one has read them.  The book is barely a whisper of a suggestion on Goodreads.  It has many iffy reviews because so few people take a chance on it.  Subway Girl is one of those books.  It has a fabulous premise - two teenagers, one Chinese, one half Chinese - who have a language and understanding barrier between them, but manage to fall in love despite it.  This book is one that I would classify as more on the literary side of YA, as it dealt with some themes and tone that I felt could easily fit in a book aimed at adults, but it so hits the mark on giving YA a different kind of contemporary love story.  What's better is that it shows the culture of China and two PoC protagonists living within it.  One is part American and accessible, but the other, the hero, is full Chinese.  This is one of those books that I'm so glad I read and wish that I could put in the hands of readers who need something awesome and off the beaten path.

Simon is failing English.  Whether it's working at his parents shop, or his own inability to strengthen himself and study, he's in one of the lowest classes possible because of his poor English grade.  Simon struggles with the language - nothing seems to come just quite right.  And where could he go in the world without it?  The successful students are the ones who come to the language easily, or have known it since birth because of English nannies and English-speaking family members.  Kids who could afford to have a multilingual education before they entered the school system.  Simon's family isn't like that, and Simon can barely transmute his thoughts in the foreign tongue.

Amy is an American girl embracing her Chinese heritage in the most hands-on way possible.  By force.  Her family has moved to Hong Kong, and she has been enrolled at a Catholic school as a result.  Amy's been raised in a multicultural household, and her mother has always made it a point to teach her Chinese and what is expected of her as a girl who is going to embrace her heritage.  Amy is less than overjoyed.  She's managed to start dating the most sought-after guy at school, but she really doesn't care about things either way.  He's just a boy.  She's just a girl who listens to her iPod on the subway, blocking out the world and everyone in it.  What Amy doesn't understand is that someone or something can break her barrier - be it a boy, or a language.

The two meet on the subway.  Simon is smitten.  Amy is intrigued.  He can only speak well in Chinese.  She hates speaking in Chinese, and doesn't do it very well.  She will only really speak in English, and Simon's English is atrocious.  These two teenagers should not have a connection when they can barely communicate basic ideas to each other, but something pulls them together.  Simon becomes a friend to Amy, and she a friend to him. Barriers between them and their worlds start being broken.  Their lives change.  Amy deals with several harsh realities that could easily ruin anything she has with Simon and with her family if she isn't careful.  Somehow, despite a barrier of language, Simon and Amy manage to start a process that so few people manage to - they begin to fall in love.

Strangely enough, this YA novel requires a look at the male main character first.  Simon is the character that begins the journey in Subway Girl, and he's really the one that readers will want to root for because of it.  His story is one that people can relate to in one way or another.  Because of uncontrollable aspects of his family, Simon is less than proficient in English, yet it seems like the rest of the world is.  He doesn't want to be stuck at the bottom anymore, but he can't seem to study and retain the information.  Life seems pointless when improving in class means getting a thirty or a forty out of a hundred on an exam.  It's hard to get in the mind of a character that doesn't understand something that comes to us so easily, but Converse's third person narration manages to really hit home the feelings of frustration that Simon endures during his schooling with English.  It feels like a different beast, Simon does, and reading his narration really does feel foreign because of the school system and the way he goes about things.  I can't be a judge of how accurate the viewpoint is -  I think the third person allows Converse to write the viewpoint with enough separation to risk a complete cultural inaccuracy - but to me it read as something genuine.  It was also nice to see a YA book that followed the guy character as much as the girl character in the romance.  It's not a romance in the normal YA romance sense, as it does have its veins more in the "realistic" romance you see in literary fiction (though whether it's more realistic or just less romantic is another matter entirely).  Still, Simon is a character that grows in confidence and independence.  I was surprised, actually, at how Converse was able to show that the motivation of love and connection can progress to a teenager improving themselves.  It felt mature, and what was great was that Simon ultimately was able to be himself around Amy, even if his English abilities needed improving.

As for Amy, I don't know how people will react to her character.  I liked her.  She was real.  She wasn't annoying.  She just makes some mistakes and goes through some issues that I can some readers falling flat with.  Amy, unlike Simon, has more of a resentfulness towards her language than an issue with learning it.  She knows more than she appears to.  The Chinese heritage her mother tries to instill in her has turned her away because of how it seems to make her feel like an object.  She's dating a guy that everyone wants her to date...yet she could care less about him.  He's kind of a douche.  Amy is a character that is completely out of her element and doesn't know how to gain the confidence she needs to change her life.  She doesn't know how to stand up to her mother, dump the guy that she hates, or feel whole.  I felt like one particular event early on in the story really expressed just how trapped she felt in her life.  ::Minor Spoilers (highlight to read)::  Amy and her boyfriend are together and they have sex, and she tries to make him put on a condom, but he refuses and that ends up being the cause of her getting pregnant.:: End Spoilers:: That event and the ensuing pregnancy really brought me into Amy's mindset.  I understood why she was trapped and sympathized with her.  I understood why she felt animosity towards her heritage.  There was a lot of emotion in there, and the emotional reaction of wanting to protect this character surprised me.  I think that's what endeared me to this story most.  I wanted the two of these characters to get together and fall in love, because they both deserved something to make their lives more joyful.  They needed that infusion of happiness, and Converse made it clear that, while not easy, they could provide that for each other in a way that was meaningful and important.  Converse treats this romance like it's an adult romance, and that's where the accuracy of the characters and the relationships comes into play.  He doesn't dumb down the importance of their relationship because of their age, and the power of it is really a gut-punch to the reader.

Where this book lacks fullness is the writing.  Converse is a skilled writing in terms of evoking some complex emotions and getting a great and unusual story going, but I felt like Subway Girl was a little too short.  The problems expressed in this book are complex and could have been more detailed, more fleshed out.  When you write about these kind of issues - pregnancy, romance, language barriers - there's so much there that has to be shown without words, and there's so much to explore with the words that are said.  I wanted to see more from these characters and wanted less of a rush through their life events.  The story is strong on its own, and the writing holds up well enough, but there's just a lack of complication in some areas to what is a very complicated relationship between two teenagers and their lives.  I wanted to especially see more of their families, their cultures, and how that effect where they would go and how they were going there.  I didn't feel like I got enough of a grasp on what the school system was like in China, and as an American that's foreign to me.  I don't know how much more there is to it, but it's something different that readers would probably find interesting - especially if it could have been integrated into the plot.  I also wanted to see more of side characters like Simon's best friend.  I felt like they were given too much of an aside in this story.  Hong Kong is a big and crowded city, but the book is almost too contained to express the entirety of what I can only imagine a bustling and crowded city like Hong Kong can be.

Subway Girl is a little diamond in the rough.  Not everyone will appreciate it like I have here, but there's something here that is special and unique.  It's a novel that isn't afraid to leave a bit of mystery and hardness to the romance.  It feels a little more literary in how it portrays the life of two teenagers who happen to meet one day in the subway.  There's so much between Amy and Simon that is strong and well-written, but I only wish their story had more to it, and that the setting felt more like a character.  Hong Kong was still expressed well, but there was a missed opportunity in how the culture and setting contributed to the story.  Still, it's a short and well-written book that I'd suggest to people who want something a little out-of-the-way.  Something that will leave you pondering for a moment after you set it down.

Cover:  I quite like the cover, actually.  I would have liked to see Simon represented (and the girl's face - I can't tell if she's Chinese or not), but I like the blur and how it invokes the idea of a subway train whizzing past.

Rating:  4.0  Stars

Copy:  Received from publisher/publicist for review  (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!)

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Cialina at said...

I definitely wanted to check out your review when I came across it in your reader. I know about the book, but I really haven't seen much about it. I'm always hesitant to check out more literary YA because I feel like it could be a hit or miss for me. But I will have to keep this one in mind for the future. I like how it's set in China, and I like the premise.