From Little Tokyo, With Love by Sarah Kuhn. Viking, Penguin Random House, 2021. 9780593327487
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3.5
Genre: Realistic fiction, romance
What did you like about the book? Rika lives in L.A. in the neighborhood of Little Tokyo, with her two aunties (a queer couple) and their daughters, Belle and Rory. Her real mother died in childbirth (or did she???) and Rika’s father is a mystery, although definitely not Japanese. With her curly hair, fiery temper and commitment to judo, Rika feels like an outsider. In true rom-com fashion, the action of this book takes place over just a few days, in which she finds true love with a hot but sincere Chinese-Filipino actor/dancer/rising star named Henry, hunts down her very much alive but AWOL mom (who turns out to be the Asian-American rom-com queen, Grace Kimura), and discovers that her cobbled together family and community love her very much. This is a fast-paced plot, with Rika and Henry rushing to various L.A. landmarks, looking for clues to find the missing Grace. I appreciated the introduction to “purity policing” that Henry’s movie pals discuss at an Asian Hollywood meet-up and Kuhn’s critical look at what it means to be a “halfsie,” as though people can be described using fractions. Rika’s interest in judo and her identification with the nure-onna (a creature from Japanese folklore with a woman’s head but a snake’s body) as a way to understand her temper gave her interesting depth. All the characters in the book are Asian-American.
Anything you didn’t like about it? Although Rika longs to find and meet her mother, that reunion doesn’t happen until the last few pages, with no time to see how the relationship develops. The whole trope of “secret love child” and attendant shame seemed very retro. Most problematic for me was the constant telling. Characters frequently leave natural speech behind, replacing it with super-articulate therapy-speak, dictating exactly what the reader’s take-away should be. Similarly, plot points are mercilessly foreshadowed. Despite being an accomplished practitioner of judo, we only see Rika at the dojo one time, in which she gets hot and heavy with Henry after teaching him a body throw.
To whom would you recommend this book? Teens looking for romance novels, especially one with Asian-American characters. This would be a good choice for readers who want things spelled out for them. Rika and Henry do have sex in the back of his Suburu, so I would say grades 9 and up.
Who should buy this book? High schools and public libraries.
Where would you shelve it? YA fiction, romance if you genre-fy
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No
Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA
Date of review: August 12, 2021