Note: This book was originally published under the name Laurinda in Australia back in 2014.
My Summary: Lucy Lam receives the Equal Access scholarship to the prestigious Laurinda and walks into Year 10 thinking it will be her ticket out of the impoverished neighborhood her family lives in. While she is hopeful, she is also anxious about whether she will fit in among the elite students at her school. What she finds at Laurinda is equal parts fascinating and horrifying, and she must learn to navigate the school’s social snakepit without losing sight of herself and her roots.
I was really looking forward to reading this book, so much that I actually set aside the #DiversityDecBingo book I was reading to read this instead. I can’t say I regret it.
A lot of books about diasporic Asians call out racism, but this book takes it to another level. I’d venture to say it offers one of the most incisive critiques of wealthy white people’s elitism and hypocrisy that I’ve seen in a young adult novel. I’m almost surprised that it managed to get the green light for publication without some white publishing industry professional whining about “reverse racism,”
One of the refreshing things about this book is that it centers the experience of an Asian person from a working-class background. Lucy’s parents are not the educated elite that people often associate with diasporic Asians. She and her parents are refugees from Vietnam (her family is ethnically Chinese, though; Teochew, to be specific). Her parents work long hours, her father at a carpet factory, her mother at home sewing knockoffs of brand name clothes. They live in an area called Stanley, which others might call a “ghetto.” Given her background, Lucy is perfectly positioned to see through and call out the pretentious bullshit of her classmates, their families, and her school.
At the beginning, Lucy is impressed by the glamour and glitz of Laurinda, but she quickly realizes how much of a sham it is. Although the school prides itself on its academic and extracurricular excellence, its most noteworthy trait, from Lucy’s perspective, is its expectation of conformity. Although the school administration and faculty play a part in this, the majority of this pressure is exerted by an elite group of girls called the Cabinet. The politics of the student body revolve around the whims of these three girls, and even the adults of the school are often at their mercy. One cannot cross them without the expectation that dire consequences will follow.
Although Lucy recognizes their influence and their ugliness, she eventually gets drawn into their orbit and becomes closer to them and their mothers. The proximity much more physical than it is emotional, and Lucy understands that their interest in her is anything but genuine. All the same, she puts up with their antics because she feels powerless to resist, knowing her future at Laurinda is on the line if she gets into trouble by breaking the mold. This nuance of power dynamics is important because so often POC are roped into shit where walking away or fighting back will sabotage their hard-earned positions.
Against her better judgment, Lucy begins to internalize some of the toxicity of her environment. It’s gradual, but it creeps in. Thankfully, these views don’t go unchallenged. Lucy’s internal monologues and clapbacks are there for the reader, unpacking and eviscerating the wealthy white nonsense that the people around her spew. The racist and classist microaggressions, the blithe ignorance, the arrogant entitlement, the patronizing tokenism, the objectifying voyeurism, the white savior complex–all of these offenses are dragged through the mud in Lucy’s narration.
Which brings me to my next point. The book adopts an epistolary format. The story is told through a series of letters that Lucy writes to her former friend Linh, who attended her old Catholic school, Christ Our Savior, with her. This format allows Lucy to reminisce and discuss past events while linking them to current events, highlighting the contrasts between Lucy’s old and new lives. It provides a humanizing insider’s perspective on the people and communities that are othered in Australian society and reveals the hypocrisy that the wealthy white elite consider themselves above the very people whose exploitation they depend upon for the image of superiority, the people who do the honest work while they’re busy posturing over nothing.
Lucy’s parents provide contrasting perspectives on the wealthy white elite. Her mother is the relentlessly practical one who does things as necessary without much thought for appearances and status. Her father, on the other hand, is much more interested in looking good and more or less encourages Lucy to brown-nose and network to her advantage. While she does succumb to pressure a little, she’s still resistant to the principle, noting that her father doesn’t seem to see the difference between exploitation and friendship. The Cabinet is very much about the former.
That all said, this book left some things to be desired. Although was some critique of how girls weaponize internalized misogyny against one another, the book doesn’t completely overturn misogynistic values. Lucy refers to a character as a “slutty virgin” (?) at some point, so the judgmental moralizing over women’s sexuality is an issue. Also, the book is a little bit gender essentialist in certain places, with the whole “men fight it out and get over it, women bitch and backstab and get petty revenge” thing.
As for queerness, well, let’s just say it’s only alluded to but never really given full presence/development. Although Lucy refers to certain girls at her old school “discovering their true sexuality” after watching a play in which a girl stars as the main male protagonist, these characters are not named or given any more coverage. Overall, the book is pretty heteronormative in talking about romance and flirting. One character calls another a “lezzo” and while this person is portrayed as a distasteful character without a doubt, there isn’t really any direct narrative callout of her homophobia. Nor are there any explicitly named/described girls who like girls, despite the story taking place in an all girls school (like come on, statistically speaking, somebody there is gay/bi/pan). There are also no trans characters, but (sadly) this is practically a given in most YA novels.
Recommendation: I’d recommend it for the hilariously snarky take on racism and classism but keep an eye out for the problematic stuff I mentioned.