Skip to main content

Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi: YA Book Review


Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi

Overview: Jayne is in fashion school in NYC. Well, she's enrolled. It's debatable how often she actually attends. June has a fancy job in finance, or that's what everyone thinks. But when June gets cancer, the estranged sisters are pulled together because June needs Jayne's identity to get treatment. By pretending to be her sister to get the life-saving procedure, June is forced to come clean and pull Jayne back into her orbit. Though their relationship stays rocky, they're suddenly glued together, forced to admit that their respective glamorous lives are actually filled with roaches and trauma and missteps. Overall: 5+++

This book made me happy cry (that's never happened while reading) and sad cry.

Characters: 5 The book is told from Jayne's perspective in an extremely close first person. This book has plot. Things happen in the way that life happens, but it's mostly just characters getting split open and probed for all their worth. You become intimately acquainted with the way Jayne's brain works. How it maybe works similar to yours in some ways. Jayne has been through a lot. She always felt rejected or like she was never enough for her mother. She wanted to be cool, and her older sister was the opposite of that, so they were driven apart during their high school years in Texas. None of the men she's dated- or at least hooked up with- have treated her well. She's come to expect to be mistreated by friends and others who come into her life. She tried partying to escape her brain, to find a semblance of community, but that just left her blurry and even sadder. And when all else fails, she copes with the nauseous swirl of life through her eating disorder that's been slowly biting away at her since high school. Jayne starts the book in a state where she's fully aware of how bad her situation is but also thoroughly unable to do anything to fix it. And that's not to say she's making excuses. Sometimes you just have to arrive at the point where you're ready to make a major change entirely on your own. 

Jayne has an amazing evolution over the course of the book. She comes to terms with her family trauma, with all the unanswered questions. She slowly starts to understand her past and why her relationships are what they are. There's no huge reconciliation story, but it happens quietly. Everything in this book happens quietly, realistically. Similarly, Jayne learns she can be loved without being used in a quiet romantic arc that pops up in a truly healing, though still flawed, way throughout the book as a quiet murmur in the background.

While Jayne has always been popular- or at least too cool for her own good- June has always been the smart, sensible one. She graduated high school and went straight to Columbia. From there, she landed her job in finance. She has plenty of disposable income and lives in a fancy high-rise in the East Village. June looks like she's made it from the outside. On the inside, she's recently gotten fired, feels like her life is spiraling out of control, and is contending with a cancer diagnosis in her early 20s. June is proof that even when you look like you have it all it together, you can still be falling apart. You can still need help even when all you want to do is give help. 

The other striking half of June's storyline is just the epitome of how horribly screwed up healthcare is in America. There's obviously the insurance issue after she loses her job that leads to the identity switch, but towards the end of the book, it's revealed that June has always suffered from excruciating periods that lead to traumatic bullying in high school when she'd bleed through her pants and cause issues at work when she frequently had to go to the bathroom to change her tampon. It caught me off guard and made me absolutely furious. Her story just accented how little the medical system helps people deal with issues around their periods and reproductive health and accented how the stigma around periods makes it even more unbearable to live with that kind of medical condition. Beyond that, on the topic of healthcare, there's a scene where June and Jayne are at a Dairy Queen in Texas and they park next to a van with a sign asking for a kidney donor. Jayne thinks about it, hoping they get their kidney but wondering why someone would agree to do that. I'm pretty sure we've all seen a sign like that and had a thought like Jayne, whether it was a sign on a car or a Go Fund Me page on Twitter. It was just another jab to the heart. And, finally, in the book Jayne repeatedly goes to therapy in an attempt to make progress on her anxiety and eating disorder. At a critical crisis moment for Jayne, her therapist that she's been seeing through her school insurance tells her that she's exceeded the 8 free sessions and will have to pay a steep co-pay to continue getting treatment. Cost prohibits so many people from getting the help they need, and that was particularly accented as the scene played out. We've been failed in so many ways, and that crushing reality is so quietly woven into the book through these characters' simple life experiences that it doesn't become crushing till the end. 

There are so many characters that appear for a glimmer and others that are always quietly there in the background, like June and Jayne's parents. But the last character I want to talk about in particular is Patrick. He functions almost as a tiny glimmer of hope in the book as Jayne goes from stalks an old church friend's Instagram to find out he's turned into a cool creative director with a grad degree from Yale. He's the foil to her horrible on again-off again boyfriend who has moved into Jayne's illegally subletted apartment and won't leave. Patrick is mysterious and sophisticated and shows up on a dime to meet Jayne at a grimy dive bar. He's never invasive. He's gentle. He cooks for Jayne in his tiny apartment and loans her his sweats. He makes plenty of mistakes as all messy, messy people do, but he so clearly has a good heart. He's so clearly the proof Jayne needs that there are good, kind people in the world who can and will love her honestly. And the flickers of a new relationship that we witness are truly healing and beautiful, made even more so by the glimpses we get into Jayne's past. 

Plot: 5 Like I said before, this book doesn't have much plot. There's a story arc for sure, and more than that, there are astounding character arcs, but it's not a plot driven story. At all. Mary has talked about that being a common thread in her books, and you either love it or hate it. I happen to love it. In the scenes where "nothing happens" Mary takes the time to intimately acquaint us with character's inner lives and ugly thoughts. We know every tiny detail of the world because the story isn't running on a bullet train. It moves at the pace of life. Some days are still and reflective, others chaotic. And Mary isn't shoving the book along faster to create a snappier plot. You have to be willing to totally live in her books to properly enjoy them. It's never a race to the big conclusion. And if you want a big conclusion- not the spoil anything- but that's not what you're getting here. As the book intimately mimics the tangles of life identically, the ending works much like life and allows you to choose your own conclusion. It's plenty satisfying, but there's no crowning moment where everyone is safe, the invader is gone, and the prince carries her off into the sunset. Though, for a book that's almost 400 pages about the uncertainty of life, a tidy ending would almost feel like a betrayal. 

Writing: 5 Mary H.K. Choi is my favorite author for a reason (and I don't hand that title out lightly). Her books are like nothing else in YA. They're not even really YA. There's a coming of age, but her characters tend to be older, living in the real world, reconciling their issues with their parents from a distance, in their own apartments wondering how they can fake being an adult a little longer. She fills a gap in both YA and adult like no one else. I beg publishing constantly for more books with YA centered conflict for 18-23 year olds. I hope they'll listen eventually. 

The other thing that makes Mary so unique is that every word feels incredibly intentional without ever impacting the flow of the book or creating the foreboding sense of the "writer" hanging over the book. It's so cerebral and intense and intelligent. I kept taking pictures of passages that utterly blew me away. She articulates feelings I've never found words for myself, and she does this in little, throwaway sentences. I've never seen a writer make the tiny moments of life so fascinating without hyper-inflating them. She simply knows how to focus the microscope in a way that means her books don't need more embellishment. It's both effortless and meticulous. She captures the incredible nuances of people and places in a way I rarely see. She made me nostalgic for Texas, the place I grew up hating the whole time. She has the right inside jokes that will hit home for every current and former Texan, and she describes New York in a way that makes me ache for it and fear it. I was supposed to be there this year, and she makes me feel like I understand it a little more as I watch so many of my Zoom classmates run around that very city. I can't tell if Jayne is supposed to go to Parsons or FIT (they're both decently close together around the Union Square type area), but that also hit close to home. Mary inherently understands her subjects, and that comes through in a way you can't fake. 

Finally, if you wanted to, you could call Yolk an "issue book". It's not marketed that way at all. There is an author's note warning about the possible emotional expense of the book, but it's never emphasized. The book talks about living with an eating disorder (in great detail) and being a survivor of sexual assault (to a lesser extent). I've read so many books about both topics, and it's so often done in a way that centralizes the trauma and makes it the only defining feature of the plot and the character dealing with it. The entire book exists under that purview. And while plenty of those books handle it well, I appreciate the way Yolk (and Emergency Contact too) handle it more. 

It's not polarizing. It's only really a small part of the Jayne we know. It impacts her life and shapes her worldview, but these experiences exist in the story as they exist in the real people who have those lived experiences. It's one part of a multitude of facets. It's a glancing moment in a full person. And the way that both events are written about are thoroughly wrapped into the situation of the scene and through Jayne's feelings. It's not being thrust in some wider context or commentary about the world. It's not endlessly ruminated on, and it's not flashy. It's almost normal. And that's scary and hard to digest that so many people deal with some form of these traumas that it is normal. It's much easier to play it in a removed, stigmatized, scary way that's not connected to the million other things we deal with in a day. 

Yolk gives you all of it all at once. And I also love Jayne's recovery story. There's a lot of struggling and bad choices. There is a breaking point with her eating disorder, but it's not cinematic, it's not romantic like some portrayals can be. It's also not instructive. Most of the portrayal of Jayne's eating disorder is simply a hum in the background, worried glances, and tiny details slipped into larger passages that hint at the severity. Jayne goes to therapy when she can, and her therapist isn't a perfect fit. Eventually, she tries an eating disorder support group, and it's awkward and uncomfortable and cringey in the way that all groups are. She's skeptical, but she's also been on the arc to be ready to try to be helped. To try to help herself. There are so many nuanced scenes of Jayne taking steps forward and back to reclaim her body as her own, in all senses, and it's stunningly real to watch. It's gentle and fragile and the hesitant place of recovery she lunges towards at the end is beautiful. 

I don't have enough good things to say about Yolk honestly. 

More From The Author...

Yolk Event at Blue Willow

Permanent Record Review

Emergency Contact Re-Review 


Popular posts from this blog

YA You Need To Read: April 2021

It's already April! School has been super super hectic, and I'm starting my old job as a bookseller again, so I haven't had much time for reading lately (ironic, I know), but I did want to talk about some books coming out in April that I can't wait to read (one day) that might inspire you to pick them up. I particularly can't wait for My Epic Spring Break Up! It's been on my list for a while now (I mean, look at that cover), but I also found some new books that hadn't been on my radar while browsing around the internet that I wanted to bring to your attention.  Let me know in the comments what April books you can't wait for!  Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Kahn  April 6th Zara has lived in Corpus Christi, Texas for a while. She's always dealt with the Islamophobia that's rampant in her high school, but when the star football player gets suspended, Zara becomes the target of a racist attack by the rest of the team that puts her and her family'

Once Upon a Quinceañera

Once Upon a Quinceañera   by Monica Gomez-Hera Overview: Carmen hasn't graduated high school, even though it's the summer after senior year. When her senior project fell through, Carmen has to scramble to complete the project over the summer. That means no college (not that she applied) and no future plans beyond becoming a Dream (floating around in a Belle costume at children's parties) with her best friend Waverley. So maybe it's not the summer Carmen wanted, but it's fine. At least until her ex-boyfriend who ruined everything, Mauro, also shows up on the team and then they get assigned to work her nemesis and younger cousin's quinceañera, which becomes the big event of the summer. Nothing ever quite goes to plan for Carmen, does it? Overall: 4 Characters: 4 I enjoyed hanging out with Carmen for a while. She's super witty and cynical in a way that I appreciate. I also loved reading about a character who's just out of high school and doesn't have a

Olivia Rodrigo'a SOUR As YA Books: Track By Track

This list turned out to be much harder to make than I anticipated when I came up with the idea last week. I set out to match songs to SOUR because what goes better with an album written by a 17/18 year old than YA books, but it turns out that YA books are just too hopeful for this album. Unlike many of these songs, I couldn't find books where the characters ended the book totally despondent and broken up. It took a bit of brainstorming, but I think I found a book to match the essence of each SOUR track. Le me know in the comments which songs on SOUR are your favorite. Mine are "brutal", "favorite crime", "deja vu", and "jealousy, jealousy".  1. "brutal" : War and Speech   by Don Zolidis War and Speech just radiates the same badass, discontented with teenage life energy as "brutal". This was the first book that popped into my mind when I thought about making this post. Just look at the cover. Sydney's life has been fa

Halsey's I Would Leave Me If I Could Poetry Review

  I Would Leave Me If I Could  by Halsey  I've started this review a couple times and scrapped all of them. I've written hundreds of reviews before, and this is the first time I have absolutely no clue how to review a book. It's not just because it's poetry. And it's not because I don't have thoughts on every single poem. I've read the book twice and scrubbed a million notes around her words and highlighted every poem on my second read through. I have so many favorites, and my heart feels like it's going to burst after finishing each poem. Halsey exceeded every expectation I had set to the high bar of her music. I almost feel like this book is too good for my review to remotely do it justice, so I don't even know where to begin.  This book is extremely vulnerable. Halsey has never held back on telling the ugly truth in her lyrics, but the poetry takes it so much farther. She has space to tell the entire story, fewer constraints than what will fit in

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston: NA Book Review

  One Last Stop  by Casey McQuiston Get Your Copy! Overview: August moved to New York for yet another fresh start and hopefully to finish out college (finally). In her attempt to find a place, she stumbles into an apartment full of interesting people who will quickly become her best friends. They fold her seamlessly into their lives. And then, on the subway, August meets a girl who will change her life forever. As time goes on, August finds out that Subway Girl, or Jane, is stuck on the Q metro line by some kind of energetic force. With the Q shutting down for maintenance by the end of the summer, August and her friends have to band together to get Jane unstuck, even if that means bouncing her back to 1977 where she came from and never seeing her again. Overall: 4 Characters: 5 I genuinely loved everyone in this book, and they gave me such warm, fuzzy, and hopeful feelings. The book would be New Adult if that was a category that publishing actually used (please can we make this more of

End of Summer YA to Preorder: August TBR

I know I always start these posts by panicking about how it's somehow already *insert whatever month here* because I'm always genuinely surprised when a new month rolls around and I realize it's already time to make a TBR post. But this month it's extra scary because I'm going to start this month at home like normal and end the month in a a brand new city, on my own, and starting in college in person for the first time. I have a road trip and a million boxes and probably a few tears in my future. (More on that later because I think I'm going to actually write a wrap up for this month sometime this week since there are about to be a ton of big changes!)  Anyway, here are the books I'm most excited for during the month of August. This list is a bit shorter than usual, but it has a bit of everything I love: a college YA/NA, a pop star story, and a book from an author I've enjoyed before.  If you're excited about any of these books, make sure you get you

Writing Morally Gray Characters: A Guest Post by Laurie Devore, Author of A Better Bad Idea

Laurie Devore is stopping by the blog today to talk about her new book from Imprint, A Better Bad Idea , which is out now! This mystery/thriller/romance fusion is Laurie's third book, and it's a new twist on her usual contemporary YA stories. For this guest post, Laurie talks about crafting morally gray characters that your readers will still feel attached to and cheer on. Here's her best writing tips:  I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of what people will do when they’re pushed to their brink. While my new novel, A BETTER BAD IDEA, may seem like a departure in some ways from my previous novels, I actually think their DNA is quite similar. The stakes are higher, but as ever, this book is about girls making unimaginable choices because of their circumstances, whether self-inflicted or not.   I’m constantly thinking about what it means to write morally gray characters, and I think the main takeaway from me is that I’m just much more interested in what people do and w

Swimming Lessons By Lili Reinhart Poetry Review

  Swimming Lessons  by Lili Reinhart  Overall: 5 This is the first poetry book I've ever read in its entirety outside of Shel Silverstein, so I've checked off one of my reading goals for the year with this one. I've now read a graphic novel and a book of poetry. I've been anticipating Swimming Lessons  so long that I can't believe it's actually in my hands. I've been a fan of Lili since Riverdale, and I've continued to be a fan of hers even when the show got a bit too ridiculous for me to keep watching every week. I've been excited for the chance to get to see something completely created a controlled by Lili.  I'm not sure what I expected from Swimming Lessons . I think I had almost no idea what it would be like or the topics it would cover. After the first couple poems, I was completely hooked. In the intro, Lili prefaces the collection by noting that poetry has always given her solace in knowing other people felt the same specific emotions tha

This Is How We Fly by Anna Meriano: YA Book Review

This Is How We Fly  by Anna Meriano  Overview: Ellen is grounded for the entire summer. The whole summer. With one loophole. Quidditch. It wasn't even Ellen's idea, but her best friend, Melissa, isn't letting her summer get ruined by Ellen's unfortunate situation. Stuck in a constant battle with her step mom, Connie, and feeling utterly lost as her friend group shifts and realigns before college, Ellen is at a total loss with how to feel about her life, let alone her impending move to college in the fall. Everything is a mess and nothing makes sense, but there will always be hot Houston sun, buckets of sweat, and Quidditch. Overall: 3.5 Characters: 4 I really relate to Ellen, and I'm surprised I haven't seen a YA character more like her before. She's extremely conscious of social issues and the deep flaws in the world, and the hate, injustice, and pure stupidity of things often sends her down somewhat dark spirals about the state of the world when she spends