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.
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