Parachutes by Kelly Yang
TW: Sexual Assault
Overview: Claire and Dani start out feeling like they live on two different planets. Claire has lived a glamorous life in China, cared for by live-in help and constantly picked up after. Every argument with her dad ends in a new purse or pair of shoes, and she's never had to seriously want for anything. Dani and her mom work for a housecleaning service to stay afloat. She attends American Prep on scholarship and works hard to fund her debate travel. Eventually, her mom signs up to host an international student to make a little extra money. While Claire and Dani originally clash, their experiences over the course of the school year make them realize they have more in common than they originally thought. Overall: 5
Characters: 5 Every single character in this books was so well drawn and thoroughly paid attention to. Through subtle nuances, even the most minor characters were stunningly clear and realistic. Every character had their fair mix of triumphs and shortcomings, and they all reflect the biases and toxic thinking that society pushes on people. They illustrate that your morality isn't what your taught but what choose to question and improve upon. It's not the prettiest look in the mirror, but it is an extremely necessary one.
The two point of view characters are Dani and Claire. I liked that we got to see the world from both points of view because they couldn't be more different. I think the opportunity to see the same situation both ways really highlights how two people can walk away from a conversation with two totally different perceptions of what happened. People pay attention to different aspects of the situation.
I connected with Dani a lot more immediately. She's an incredibly hard worker and very perceptive. She works hard to be sensitive to the feelings and needs of everyone around her. She isn't afraid to put in the time and energy for what she wants, and she treats her friendships similarly. Dani has the interesting perspective of having been born in and grown up in America but raised by her mom who is a first generation immigrant from the Philippines. She's able to look through both perspectives and gain a more honest look at America. Justice, honor, and ethics are major themes that pop up throughout the book, and while, as a debater, she believes in them greatly, she also understands how selective America's application of those words is. It's made her realistic, but she manages to never let it make her cynical. I really admired how fiercely she was willing to fight for what was right and how she always took the time to arm herself with the facts to make her arguments airtight. Her strength and resilience always shines through.
Claire originally seems like Dani's polar opposite, and her arch definitely had the most room for growth. I loved that, by the end of the book, it became clear that they were far more similar than different. Claire has never known what it's like to want or work which makes it extremely hard for her to connect with Dani. But Claire's experience isn't unique at American Prep. They have a system set up to take in rich kids from China and pair them with housing to allow them to get American educations and live independently in LA. The school has used this program to elevate its status and rake in a considerable amount of money. They call them "parachutes". While Claire finds friends that are a lot like hers, she also comes to question why the school is so divided between the locals and the parachutes, and she begins to champion a more inclusive version of the school. She's torn between many worlds, expectations, and prescribed paths, and it often gets overwhelming. Though Claire isn't thrilled about being in America, she uses the opportunity to finally define her life by her own principles and needs. She starts swimming again, campaigns to get into a better English, and starts to get to know the kids outside of her little approved bubble. As her world expands, though, the pressures from home gets louder, and Claire struggles with how much she wants to listen. Throughout the book, she truly finds her own voice and even becomes inspiring to others.
Plot: 5 The book is long, but Yang makes use of every single page. The plot is both dynamic and organic. We get to build an understanding of the complex systems and social dynamics (which are fascinating on their own) before we get into the real meat of the plot. The book is continually eye opening throughout as Yang delves into class, perceptions, race, systems of oppression, and more.
The main plot line that comes out details Claire and Dani's parallel experiences with facing sexual assault and harassment. Dani's debate coach, who always encouraged her and felt like a father figure, starts making inappropriate advances that she repeatedly rejects. As it goes beyond off comments and uncomfortable moments, Dani tries to handle it how you're always told to- going to the administration. They defend the teacher for the sake of their reputation, and Dani is ostracized by her teammates when they hear what happened to her. The school leaves her to choose between her future and love of debate or her comfort and safety. Dani refuses to stand down and also starts discovering even more corruption running through the school.
At the same time, Claire is facing a similar issue of her own after being sexually assaulted by a classmate. When she takes her story to the headmistress, she's shot down and told to just let it go. Only her English teacher takes her seriously, which is heartbreaking but not far from reality. She decides to go before the ad board at the school, but justice doesn't exist in a system where money and prestige are the only meaningful currencies. Claire is treated horribly because her family has less money and power.
Cumulatively, their stories represent the collective failing of the education system to hear students and of society to take life changing allegations seriously. Their classmates either refuse to believe them or wonder why they didn't keep their mouth shut. As both girls get interrogated by the authority figures, their classmates, and those around them, Yang makes the reader understand why so many people never come forward with their stories or don't till much later in life. They take on an extreme burden for little in return, and people make efforts to suppress their voices at every turn. While both girls are extremely brave and courageous, the book is unfortunately realistic. It was empowering to see how hard they were willing to fight for both justice and to protect others.
Society expects far more from the survivor- the victim of the crime- than they ever do from the perpetrator. They expect girls to learn how to fight, to always have a way to defend themselves, to skip opportunities to protect themselves instead of going after systemic issues and punishing the criminals. If anything, I hope this book makes you realize just how bleak the reality of how we handle sexual assault is and how much damage it causes. And when someone comes forward with an accusation you'll meet it with empathy instead of the what if game.
Writing: 5 This book is incredible. Yang delivers a fully immersive world. In the author's note she delves into the amount of research that contributed to the book, and you can feel it seamlessly blend in here. Her style is immediately engaging, and Dani and Claire both have distinct voices. She makes it easy to live in their heads. Yang's pension for realism with plot points and focus on nuance makes it a truly special reading experience. It was fascinating to read about this group of kids navigating an augmented adult world without the tools they needed. The situation the program leaves them in forces the parachutes to become adults without understanding that they really are still kids. Yang explores this in a fascinating way. She also calls attention to a ton of important topics. If you've experienced it, you'll feel seen and a sense of healing from her portrayals, and if you haven't, she provides and excellent window into the reality. This book feels like it has the potential to truly make a difference.
Favorite Quote: "Girl, justice is something Americans invented to sell movies."
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