Updated: Feb 23
Hello, readers! Welcome to my first ever book review, where I, Eric Nhem, will share my thoughts on books written by Asian authors and/or with Asian characters. I personally believe reading is a dying art, so this is my attempt to breathe some life into it. At the very least, I’ll be able to highlight stories that are finally depicting Asians in ways that aren’t one-dimensional or stereotypical. Let’s get started!
I recently read a young adult romantic comedy novel called Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chao. The story revolves around a girl named Chloe who hires a boy named Drew from a company specializing in renting out fake boyfriends. Why does Chloe need to hire a fake boyfriend, you ask? Her parents are trying to set her up with a scumbag bachelor whom she doesn’t care for at all. In their eyes, especially her mom's, Chloe marrying said scumbag bachelor will ensure she doesn’t die a spinster. Enter Drew, who works at the company “Rent for Your ‘Rents” to pay the bills. His job is to be the perfect boyfriend in order to convince Chloe’s parents to drop the engagement. Chaos ensues. Spoiler alert: during their charade, Chloe and Drew develop real feelings for each other, but they’re in so deep that telling the truth to her parents—and themselves—would make things worse.
It had been a while since I read a rom-com, but after the year we’ve all had, the levity was much needed. I had fun following Chloe and Drew and seeing how they end up together (because we all know they end up together). It made me wonder if I would ever rent a girlfriend to impress my parents if such a service existed (answer: I would definitely research the website and see my options.) Mixed in the novel were many references to being Asian American and being the child of immigrants. One of my favorite moments was when Chloe and Drew were baking cookies together:
“While I was beating the eggs with chopsticks, Andrew moseyed over to preheat the oven. I yelled, waving my hands for a second before shutting it off.
‘What—’ he started, but I opened the oven door and hastily pulled out pots and pans and extra dishrags.
‘How did you of all people not know this was a possibility? This one I know isn’t just us—I have other Asian friends who use their oven for storage.’
He hit his forehead with a palm. ‘Yeah, okay, I’m embarrassed I didn’t realize that.’” (Pages 131-132).
I actually laughed out loud when I read that. Representation matters, even when it’s a reminder that in Asian families, the oven and the dishwasher serve as more storage and their intended purposes come second.
Aside from the cheesiness that fills any rom-com, I was surprised to find some deeper themes within the book with regards to being Asian. The expectation of Chloe’s parents for her to prioritize her social status and desirability over her own happiness was a dead ringer for the differences between the two generations that are prevalent in the real world. The conflict of being born in a Western society but raised with Eastern values is something I have also struggled with to this day.
Drew’s parents cut him off because he wanted to pursue art in lieu of going to college. Raise your hand if your parents wanted you to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Seeing Drew wrestle with his decision to follow his dream at the cost of losing contact with his family hurt my heart, because I have friends who were in similar positions.
Another theme was being honest with yourself about who you are and what you want. Chloe and Drew go through a journey of self-discovery as a result of pretending to be together. She’s attending a college she likes (University of Chicago instead of the big-names schools like Harvard and Stanford, as her parents wanted) and doing a major she’s passionate about (economics, despite her parents wishing she did business to take over their dental office). Drew is great at being a fake boyfriend and is paid handsomely for it. But are these enough for our two leads? Are they truly happy with where they’re at and where they think they’ll go?
As I’ve briefly touched upon, gender roles play a part in the story, as well. Chloe’s personal accomplishments don’t matter to her parents if she’s not married to a rich man. It doesn’t matter that her almost betrothed is a notorious playboy who was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. Chloe’s value as a woman—a virgin woman, to be exact—is only important when it’s attached to a man, according to her parents and how they were raised. This conflict between tradition and modernity is a struggle for many Asian Americans. That, combined with the other themes in the book, made me wonder a few things:
In the eyes of our parents, how much are we worth with or without a significant other? Many people have said that being a parent is the most rewarding job they’ve ever done. But that perception shifts when someone has been single for a long time. Someone—usually a woman—will get asked when they’ll get a significant other at every family function. And if they are already with someone, the question evolves into when they’ll get married. The inquiries can be relentless, and the responses given are vague and noncommittal. It’s difficult for the older generation to not pass any judgment when someone says they’re happy with being single at the moment.
How does that affect the value of sons versus daughters? Going by traditional beliefs, sons are expected to carry on their families’ legacies by passing down their name. However, it is daughters who bear the burden of making that possible. They’re the ones who have to be careful and follow all of the rules for nine months. But instead of being supported, they’re pressured to push out a baby that’s expected to be male. In some cases, this can be extremely dehumanizing to the woman who is only seen as a means to an end. Conversely, sons are given more leeway, assuming they’re already providing for the family.
What about people in the LGBTQ+ community? For example, if a man is gay, he might be ousted from his family, like Drew was for pursuing art. Severing that connection between parent and child will have emotional ramifications. The son’s identity is in conflict with the parents’ traditional views of the world that men like women and vice versa. Instead of trying to put in the work to understand their son, they take the easy way out of removing him from their lives altogether.
Chloe’s parents are not the villains in any way, but they do somewhat serve as antagonists to Chloe. They’re just Asian parents who want the best for their daughter. However, their noble intentions contradict the actions they take to implement them. They give Chloe a tuition check to cover her expenses, but a few chapters earlier, her mom states nobody will want her because of her “flat chest, plain face, and worrying personality” (Page 182). They try to set up Chloe’s marriage because they want her to be taken care of, but it translates to them ignoring and disregarding how miserable it makes her feel. Take a look at following scene illustrating this point:
“Hongbo fucking pulled out a ring box.
‘No,’ I said, trying to fight back tears. ‘Please leave,’ I begged, simultaneously trying not to hurl something at him or hurl, period.
‘Shut up!’ my mother yelled at me as she grabbed the box. ‘We humbly accept, Hongbo.’
I ran. I didn’t know what else to do.
‘How dare you, [Chloe]!’ Hongbo shouted. ‘Can you get that stick out of your ass for one second and smarten up before it’s too late?’
‘He’ll provide for you; your life will be so easy,’ my mother called after me. ‘And we’ve known his family for so long—what more could you ask for?’
‘You’ve never had a serious boyfriend—how can you know what you want?’ my father added.
I had never felt so utterly, completely alone.’ (Pages 158-159)
Yikes. There’s a lot going on there. Remember, Chloe is in college. She’s at that age where, yes, she might not know what she wants, but she has the time to figure it out. More importantly, she definitely knows what she doesn’t want, and that’s Hongbo. Her parents hear her, but they’re not listening to her. In the real world, this often takes the shape of parents pressuring their children to achieve the success in life that they couldn’t get for themselves. Again, they mean well, but it can be extremely overwhelming for the children who are expected to get the best grades with no margin for error. There’s no time to go out with friends, no time to date, no time to have fun. The expression “all work and no play” is an apt description for the upbringings of many Asian American kids. What our parents want for us—a well-paying career, a smart spouse, you name it—is vastly different from what we actually want. When we try to communicate that with our parents, they think we’re lazy or ungrateful for the opportunities their sacrifices afforded us.
Without giving away too much, Chloe’s parents have a secret they won’t tell her. She discovers it for herself and confronts them about it. Their justification for not telling her is that they didn’t want her to worry. Did I yell, “Why can’t you communicate properly with your family?!” out loud to no one in particular? Maybe. Of course, not knowing made Chloe—as it would for any child who cares about their parents—worry more and understandably so.
I know book reviews are also supposed to include aspects that didn’t work, but I don’t have very many. I’m not a picky reader; it takes a lot for me to tear apart a book, so take from this review what you will. The only criticism I have is that some chapters would switch between Drew and Chloe in the middle of the chapter. It worked for the rom-com format, but it was still slightly jarring. I believe the purpose was to show the other character’s thoughts and emotions in the same scene. It was mostly well-executed, especially during chapters where the character in focus goes through pages of actions and emotions, and then it shifts to the other character with just one sentence of how they feel.
Final thoughts: I expected to read a silly rom-com but ended up reading a love story filled with heart, humor, and experiences I could relate to as an Asian American. This book has characters you’ll love and at least one character you’ll love to hate. The writing style was simple without being boring, and the story moved at a reasonable pace. My purely subjective rating is five out of five stars. If you want to explore the surprising nuances I stumbled upon or if you just want a quick and light read, I recommend you check it out. Happy reading!
Editors: Anoushka K, Zoe L, Nadine R, Sam L
Cover Photo Source: Goodreads