This is a spoiler-free review.
Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi
Expected publication March 2nd, 2021 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
From New York Times bestselling author Mary H.K. Choi comes a funny and emotional story about two estranged sisters switching places and committing insurance fraud to save one of their lives.
Jayne Baek is barely getting by. She shuffles through fashion school, saddled with a deadbeat boyfriend, clout-chasing friends, and a wretched eating disorder that she’s not fully ready to confront. But that’s New York City, right? At least she isn’t in Texas anymore, and is finally living in a city that feels right for her.
On the other hand, her sister June is dazzlingly rich with a high-flying finance job and a massive apartment. Unlike Jayne, June has never struggled a day in her life. Until she’s diagnosed with uterine cancer.
Suddenly, these estranged sisters who have nothing in common are living together. Because sisterly obligations are kind of important when one of you is dying.
Content Warnings: eating disorder, cancer, racism
Thank you to the publisher, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers/Canada, and NetGalley for providing me with an e-ARC of this book. All thoughts are my own.
Having moved to New York for fashion school, Jayne can’t help but feel like her life isn’t going the way it’s supposed to. She’s got a shitty on-again/off-again boyfriend, no real friends, a horrible apartment that doesn’t even heat properly, and an eating disorder that’s getting harder and harder to deny. She can’t help feeling resentful of her sister, June, who’s successful and rich and her parents favorite. That is, until she finds out June has been diagnosed with uterine cancer.
Unable to take her apartment anymore, and spurred on by her concern for her sister, Jayne moves in with June. Now Jayne finds herself spending much more time with a sister that she barely used to talk to, despite the fact they’ve been living in the same city for years. And a cancer diagnosis isn’t the only secret June’s been keeping, while Jayne herself has a few locked away. But living together brings them closer, and uncovers more than either of them may be ready to face.
This book immediately reeled me in, and enthralled me until the very end. It’s one of the most raw, vulnerable and honest books I have ever read, and it stuck with me long after I finished it. This is by no means an “easy” book. It’s hard. The story is told from Jayne’s perspective, and Jayne has a lot going on, and not all of it healthy or positive. In fact, she spends a lot of time wallowing in the unhealthy. She’s insecure, petty, unwilling to open up to anyone, and terrible at communicating.
Choi has this incredible ability to write such rich, full characters; characters who are messy, imperfect, and flawed. Neither Jayne nor June – nor their parents, nor the estranged-childhood-friend-turned-love-interest, Patrick – feel like one dimensional caricatures. They feel real. Like real people that live, eat, breath just like you and me.
Jayne and June’s relationship feels so authentic, it’s almost hard to believe it’s fabricated. They grew up together, survived their parents and their town and their childhoods together. No one else can hurt them the way that they do, but no one else understands them either. Like any real sibling relationship, there is conflict, but there is also support.
Outside of the sibling dynamic, Jayne’s journey towards self-respect is hardly bare; there’s a lot to unpack. Choi doesn’t reduce her lead down to any one commodity; she’s truly human, in all the complexity that affords. She’s not only dealing with her body dysmorphia (which is reinforced by Western beauty standards), how her life in New York isn’t working out exactly how she planned, or navigating her fraught relationship with her sister. Deeply embedded within this story is the experience of being Korean American and the child of immigrants.
Overall, this story is an incredibly raw, incredibly moving, character-driven tale about two sisters trying to find their place in the world. While it’s categorized as YA, I wouldn’t recommend this novel to young audiences. But for older teens and young adults, this is a title you most certainly won’t want to miss.
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