Note: This review is based on an ARC that I received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The finished book will be released on September 26th, 2017.
My Summary: Kiko Himura wants nothing more to escape the suffocating environment of her home and her very white hometown in Nebraska, and acceptance into Prism, her top choice of art school, is her ticket to freedom. Much to her dismay, rejection from Prism ruins her plan, but a new unforeseen opportunity takes its place: she will go on a trip to California with her former best friend, Jamie and visit art schools on the West Coast. Desperation and the nightmare of being forced to live in under the same roof as her predatory uncle are enough to outweigh her intense anxiety, so she goes. More than just a vacation, this is a trip to find herself, reconnect with Jamie, and forge a new future.
Trigger/content warnings: anxiety, emotional abuse, childhood sexual abuse, suicide ableism
I have a lot of feelings about this book because I related to Kiko so much. Growing up in a very white environment as an Asian person messes with your self-esteem and self-image, and like Kiko, I definitely felt that I would never really be seen as attractive by people because I was Asian. I literally had a white friend tell me he generally wasn’t attracted to Asian people (he is no longer my friend, in case you’re wondering). The various microaggressions she experiences are all too familiar to me.
In addition to sharing Kiko’s experience of being Asian American, I also have generalized and social anxiety, and the descriptions of Kiko’s anxiety in Starfish resonated strongly with me. There’s a scene at a classmate’s party that was especially relatable and brought back some painful memories of parties I went to in college. Another aspect of Kiko I saw myself in was her anxiety over having romantic relationships as someone with mental illness(es). The fear of falling into toxic and codependent relationships is so real. In general, the portrayal of anxiety was just so incredibly on point for me, to the point that it actually triggered my own anxiety at times because I was empathizing with Kiko’s experience on a visceral level.
Besides being really relatable, Starfish was simply gorgeously written. Kiko is an artist, and the author expresses her artist’s point of view through poetic language. Each chapter ends with a brief description of Kiko’s latest work of art, which is thematically related to the chapter in question and serves as a visual representation of Kiko’s inner emotional landscape and how she relates to the world and the people around her. These added details create a distinctive voice for Kiko’s character.
If it wasn’t obvious from the trigger/content warnings, this story deals with some heavy topics. Kiko’s home environment is incredibly toxic. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her two brothers and her white mother. Her mother is emotionally abusive toward her. This abuse has a racialized dimension, as she uses her embodiment of white beauty ideals to belittle Kiko, whose features are more typically East Asian. Kiko craves her mother’s love and approval even while knowing that her mother does not really care about her except as it benefits or is convenient for her. It really hurt to follow Kiko through her interactions with her mother, the pain was so raw.
To make matters worse, during the events of the story, Kiko’s maternal uncle moves into the house with her family, which amplifies her anxiety. It is first strongly implied and then explicitly revealed that he sexually abused Kiko when she was younger, and she has lingering trauma from those events. Although Kiko told her mother what happened, her mother never believed her and sided with the uncle instead.
Despite the serious topics, the book isn’t all doom and gloom and angst, nor is it a tragic story. Kiko’s physical journey doubles as a psychological journey as well, allowing her to process everything she has lived through, refute the victim-blaming messages she’s gotten from her mother, and see that there are people and things outside of the cage of her toxic home. Her relationship with Jamie is very sweet and wholesome, and she also finds a role model who is Japanese American who sees her talent and gives her the push she needs to really chase her artistic dreams.
These parts of the story bring hope and light and an empowering message that were so lovely and satisfying to read. Perhaps others readers might think the ending/resolution is too much of a fairy tale happy ending, but personally, I loved it and think it’s necessary and important for readers who see themselves in Kiko. Her mental illness is not magically cured by the end of the story (which would be a very terrible message to readers), but she has greater self-awareness, a robust support system, and a means of channeling her creative energy and expressing herself honestly, all of which are critical to coping.
My one criticism of this book was the pattern of ableist language. Disabilities, including mental illnesses, span a huge spectrum, and while the rep for one disability may be great, other disabilities may not get the same treatment. In this case, the anxiety was portrayed wonderfully, but there was still ableist language that was insensitive toward other illnesses/conditions, including bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and psychosis. Specifically, these illnesses were effectively used as a scapegoat/explanation for Kiko’s mother’s abusive behavior. (Unfortunately, it’s common even for mentally ill people to use words like “psychopath” to label people who behave in violent otherwise horrible ways.) The author did mention on Twitter that she removed the words “crazy” and “insane” from the final version of the book, but I don’t know whether these other references to mental illness were taken out or rewritten. If you’re planning to read the book, just be warned that there may be several instances of stigmatizing language.
Recommendation: Overall, I highly recommend this book because it did so much for me and covered a lot of ground and was just breathtaking to read and experience. If you have anxiety or other related mental illnesses or are an abuse survivor, I’d recommend taking it slow and taking breaks because it definitely has the potential to be triggering.