Review for The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee

secret-of-a-heart-note

My Summary: Mimosa is one of the two remaining aromateurs on the planet and feels the weight of having to carry on her family’s business of mixing elixirs to help people fall in love. But she’s a teenager, and she wants to be able to experience some of the regular old aspects of teenage life, like joining clubs and getting a boyfriend. When she accidentally gives an elixir to the wrong person, she teams up with the school’s star soccer player to set things right. Unfortunately for Mim, falling for someone means losing her ultra-sensitive nose.

Review:

Stacey Lee broke her pattern of writing historical fiction, but it wasn’t a bad break at all. We still have our likable heroine, keen eye for detail, and inclusion of diversity.

The worldbuilding is done so well and makes the magical realism work. The author gives the aromateurs a history and their work a clear structure and logic that makes them believable. She also references scientific facts that help lend the magic credibility. I liked the “quotes” from past aromateurs included at the beginning of each chapter.

One of the most noteworthy things about this book is the way it engages your senses, especially the sense of smell. The kinds of details a character notices inform their perspective and are part of what makes well-written characters distinctive. Stacey Lee is a master at writing first-person narratives because she expresses those unique aspects of character voice very well.

Mim is talented and knowledgeable at what she does, having an almost encyclopedic knowledge of different scents and plants. However, that doesn’t mean she’s perfect. She makes mistakes, and her aromateur expertise is balanced out by her socially awkward side. Even when she has good intentions, those don’t always lead to good results, and she makes questionable decisions at times. More importantly, she faces the consequences of her decisions, and these mistakes feed into her growth as a character.

I love that diversity is integrated so naturally into the landscape of the book. Whiteness is far from being the default. Mim is multiracial because aromateurs are well-traveled in their quests to find ingredients for the elixirs, and she was conceived using a sperm donation. We also have Kali, Mim’s best friend who’s Samoan and queer, Whit Wu the cute and talented soccer player, Pascha Hassan the hijabi girl on the student council, Vicky the antagonist who’s Latina but not stereotypical or horrible because she’s Latina.

Although Mim is straight, the story does a decent job of challenging heteronormativity. When Mim talks about people who are predisposed to like her, she mentions boys and girls. When she’s checking people’s scents for whether they have a significant other, she doesn’t assume that whoever they might be with is of the “opposite” gender. Unfortunately, some of this good is offset by the exclusion of non-binary people and one or two places where she got a bit gender essentialist by labeling scents “male” or “female.”

Kali’s queerness was handled pretty well, overall. She’s not the token gay best friend who’s secretly in love with the protagonist or the tragic gay person. She’s not out to most people, and outing her against her wishes is never romanticized or condoned but is rather shown as being the horrible violation of privacy it is. In fact, Vicky, one of the main antagonists, uses the threat of outing Kali against Mim to get Mim to make an elixir for her.

What I appreciated about the way this situation was handled in the text was the aftermath of the way Mim responds to this threat. Mim, with good intentions, tries to take things into her own hands to defend and avenge Kali, but in the process she erases Kali’s agency and breaks away from the ethical principles that Kali respected her for, and Kali is justifiably upset by it. In the end, Kali gets to come out on her own terms, and she gets a happy ending.

I can’t really speak for the accuracy of representation as far as Kali’s Samoan identity is concerned. I’d like to see a Samoan reader’s thoughts, as there were certain things that I thought could have veered into being stereotypical instead of being realistic in the way they were portrayed: Kali’s lower-class background, her history with gangs, and her love for hip-hop.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the different relationships that it explored. Although Mim’s romance with Court was a major part of the story, it wasn’t the only relationship that was given depth and space for development. We get to see the conflicts and growths of Mim’s relationships with her mother, her estranged aunt Bryony, and Kali. Court was cute and nice, but I was a lot more invested in those other relationships, to be honest.

Another thing I liked was how the author managed to slip in little criticisms of certain social norms like institutional racism and sexism. At one point, Court remarks that Whit Wu is a better player than he is, but he got chosen to be on the Sports Illustrated cover because he looks more “All-American,” i.e. white. The school librarian also talks about sexism in her field, which is majority women but dominated by men at the upper tiers. This is a good example of diversity done right, in which diverse characters are not only present, but the characters and narrative also challenge the norms that lead to the exclusion of marginalized people.

Recommendation: Recommended for its vivid sensory descriptions, well-developed magical realism, diverse cast of characters, and heartfelt exploration of different kinds of relationships.

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3 thoughts on “Review for The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee

  1. This sounds great! My pre-ordered copy arrived yesterday and I’m just saving it for later this month when I’ll be overseas and need a REALLY REALLY GOOD book to sustain me for a long period. Nicely articulated review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful and refreshing review. Love the way your voice comes through your writing. Also Stacey Lee is an amazing author. I absolutely love her books and can’t wait to get my hand on this one. This seems like a fun and enchanting read.

    Liked by 1 person

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