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"Yellowface: A Novel" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz

The 20-something female protagonist of the novel “Yellowface,” by R. F Kuang, is possibly the most unlikeable fictional character I have come across in a few years. However, I have been recommending “Yellowface” to everyone in my orbit who is a reader of modern-day fiction.

Readers will savor the drama of this dark comedy, rendered dark because of the behavior of June Hayward, possibly the most narcissistic character in recent literature. It’s exceptional and mind-boggling to observe June’s arrogance and ability to deceive herself and others.

June has stolen an unpublished manuscript from the luxury Manhattan apartment of her “best friend” Athena Liu, a breathtakingly beautiful Asian novelist. June, less glamorous, walks away with the nearly-completed novel following the gruesome death of Athena, which June just witnessed. (Not a spoiler…Athena’s death is revealed in the first sentence of the novel.)

June and Athena, friends since their college days at Yale, have great ambitions to become famous writers. Following graduation, June experienced some success with the publication of a short memoir. With sales lagging, publishers have quit returning her desperate calls on June’s other literary offerings.

Athena, meanwhile, was offered a Netflix deal on the book she recently published, one short-listed for just about every major literary award. She was hailed as the newest and greatest upcoming 21st century writer by literary critics here and abroad.

June is racked with jealousy. She envies Athena’s financial independence, her upscale Manhattan apartment, and her ability to spend her days writing. (June has to tutor high school students preparing for the SATS to make ends meet.)

June rationalizes that Athena’s success has transpired because she is Asian, although she was born in the United States. June thinks that if she herself had been Asian, she would have enjoyed the same success as Athena instead of being marginalized as one among millions of white women.

Athena’s novel, the one June markets as her own, is snatched up by a prestigious publisher. The novel is about Chinese workers in France in World War I. June’s interest in the subject is not easily explained. Her publisher believes she needs to assume the persona of an Asian writer as much as possible to avoid accusations of “cultural appropriation.”

June is published under the name of Juniper Song, a more Asian sounding name than June Hayward. June’s photograph on the back cover of the book is altered to give June a more ethnic look since she is, unfortunately, according to the publishers, a typical-looking white woman. Her photo reflects a more “yellow face.”

The novel June steals from Athena is wildly popular, and June relishes the speaking engagements, book signings and adulation that come with a successful novel. A movie production company is interested in the rights.

When friends of Athena and some literary critics begin a campaign on social media outlets calling for June to come clean about likely stealing Athena’s work, things take a turn for the worse. June’s desire to be famous and to be remembered as a great writer convinces her that she is blameless of anything. She tells herself that her “additions” to Athena’s original manuscript made the novel the success that it has become.

In addition to treating readers to a wholly despicable main character and engaging plot, “Yellowface” also presents a window into the sometimes dark and ruthless world of publishing. It’s not always a pretty picture (unless you are Stephen King or James Patterson).

R. F. Kuang is an award-winning author whose most recent book was “Babal,” a historical fantasy.

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