Chick Lit goes multicultural in Caroline Hwang’s debut novel about a Korean-American woman trying to balance the pieces of her dual heritage. Ginger Lee’s routine is rudely interrupted when her mother appears without warning at her New York City apartment. Mrs. Lee is determined to fix her daughter’s life by finding her a nice Korean boy to marry before her “bloom is over.” Ginger feels an exasperated loyalty to her mother, a successful Milwaukee real-estate agent who raised Ginger and her brother George by herself, but she has no interest in becoming a subservient wife to a traditional Korean man.
Actually, Ginger isn’t sure what she’s interested in doing. At age 27, she has recently dropped out of a prestigious Ph.D. program and become a mere fashion assistant at À la Mode fashion magazine, working for her former college roommate Samantha. She’s resigned to remaining single for life; she can’t disappoint her mother, who disowned George 12 years ago when he married a white woman, but she won’t consider a fellow Korean either. By introducing Ginger to Bobby Oh, the son of a former neighbor, Ginger’s mother starts a convoluted chain of events that eventually leads to Ginger’s greater acceptance of herself and a “happy ending without a wedding.”
As long as she focuses on Ginger’s personal issues and her relationship with her annoying but well-intentioned mother, Hwang’s debut novel is a delight to read. She captures perfectly Ginger’s dilemma as a first-generation Korean-American who tries to “straddle both worlds” but finds that as a result she’s “not free to jump.” In a sense, she’s adrift - Ginger’s mother never taught her Korean because she wants Ginger to assimilate, but she experiences enough subtle racism against Asian-Americans to know that she will never be fully accepted.
Hwang also creates a memorable character in Ginger’s mother, whose pushy, manipulative behavior is almost, but not quite, unbearable. Hwang draws a vivid picture of an attractive Korean woman who favors Chanel dresses with big shoulder pads and gold buttons - “as long as little Korean women populated the earth, the eighties would never die”- and cheerfully mangles English idioms - “I kill two birds with one rock.” She doesn’t quite know how to communicate with her daughter, but she wants Ginger to be happy. And the only way she knows for a woman to be happy is to find a man. Ginger’s relationship with her mother is refreshingly intimate - despite her mother’s faults, Ginger obviously loves and respects her and isn’t afraid to ask her for advice.
Hwang is less successful when she ventures into Ginger’s fashion magazine workplace. The office politics of À la Mode are typical Chick Lit material, and Ginger’s bosses and co-workers have little depth. I kept waiting for Ginger to leave work and go home so she could interact with her mother again.
Hwang’s writing style occasionally gets the best of her, in vague passages such as “Thought was the seat of being…thought, which included want, was who I was.” You sense that Hwang is trying a little too hard to be profound; she should allow her heroine’s actions to convey the message, instead of forcing her into overblown epiphanies and soliloquies.
Bottom line: In Full Bloom is an auspicious debut and Caroline Hwang is an author to watch. God bless Dutton for realizing that not all Chick Lit heroines have to look the same. We need more diversity in this genre; its chances for longevity will be increased if we’re not always force-fed the same old story.