Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi

“I thought a polished appearance and stellar behavior would be the passport to belonging. And when I inevitably failed at perfection, I could at least wilfully do everything in my power to be kicked out before anyone left me.”

tw: eating disorders

Bursting with sharp humor and insight Yolk is a bighearted and profoundly honest novel. Never have I ever felt so understood and seen by a book. I have become used to eating disorders, bulimia especially, either being made into punchlines or sensationalised (i am looking at you Milk Fed). So, understandably I have become weary of reading books with main characters who have an ED. And then, lo and behold, Yolk.

There is so much to love about this novel. First, our narrator, Jayne Baek. She’s a listless twenty-year-old Korean-American college student who lives in an illegal sublet in New York. She shares the apartment with Jeremy, a polyamorous white guy she sort of had a relationship with. Not only is Jeremy scrounging off Jayne—over the course of a few months he only paid his half of the rent once—but he also gets her to help him with his ‘projects’. Although Jayne hangs out with other people, she keeps others at length, partly out of fear of being rejected, partly because she doesn’t want people to inspect her life too closely. Out of the blue, her older sister June shows up. June has a high-paying finance job, lives by herself in a swanky apartment, and, unlike Jayne, seems to have her shit together. The two sisters are not on the best of terms and in spite of living in the same city they have not seen each other for two years. Although Jayne isn’t keen on making amends with her sister, her world is upended by the news that June has been diagnosed with uterine cancer. What follows is a heartfelt tale navigating the fraught relationship between Jayne and June.

Jayne’s voice is incredibly authentic. She could be petty, silly, and cold. She’s also deeply insecure. Jayne wants to desperately leave her childhood and teenage years in Texas behind and tries to do so by barely keeping in touch with her family. She’s never been able to fully transcend the linguistic, cultural, and generational divides between her and her parents, which has caused her to feel at a remove from them. When June barges into her life Jayne isn’t all that happy. On the one hand, she finds June dorky, embarrassing even. On the other, she’s ashamed—of lousy Jeremy, the crappy apartment she’s living in, her ‘lack’ of success, and her ED. Because of this, June and Jayne’s ‘reconciliation is not smooth. Rarely have I come across such a realistic portrayal of siblings. When it comes to sisters especially creators/authors usually are rather lazy in terms of their characterization: one of them is good the other one is bad, or one of them is beautiful and the other is a ‘plain jane’, or one of them is outgoing and the other one serious (you get the gists). Choi does not confine June and Jayne to such narrow roles. They are both struggling in their own ways, they are capable of getting under each other’s skin (in record amounts of time) as no other person can yet their shared upbringing, or history if you will, also means that they ‘get’ each other. The dynamic between them felt incredibly authentic. From their arguments, which vacillated between being playful and serious, to those quieter moments between them. Speaking of arguments, Choi writes some of the most realistic arguments that I have ever read. Usually, arguments in books/tv shows/films have this scripted quality to them (they either don’t seem very spontaneous or they seem to build up gradually reaching a crescendo that ends with the people involved going their separate ways or breaking up or whatnot). Here instead the fights between June and Jayne are far more true-to-life. Sometimes they can momentarily defuse the tension between them, or sometimes their arguing reignites after a moment of calm.
Choi excels at dialogues in general. I particularly loved the banter and flirting between June and Patrick.

While the narrative does focus a lot on the love/hate bond between June and Jayne, Yolk is very much about Jayne and her relationship with herself and her body. I really appreciated the way Choi handled Jayne’s ED. While readers know that she has an ED, we only know know towards the end of the novel. I thought this was both clever and extremely thoughtful on Choi’s part. Clever because it is indicative of Jayne’s self-denial. While Jayne knows that has an ED she doesn’t want to really think about what this means. I used to rationalize my ED by treating my bulimia as a necessary step towards ‘thinness’. I knew deep down that what I was doing was definitely not healthy, but I trained my brain into thinking that it was just another part of my daily routine. So, Jayne’s denial really resonated with me. I could also really relate to Jayne’s attitude towards perfection as I too have the bad habit of abandoning things if I don’t get good enough results.
The romance between Jayne and Patrick was this great combination of cute and realistic. Their chemistry was sweet, and I loved their moments together.
Jayne’s narration is full of cultural references which made her environment(s) all the more real. I did struggle with the fashion brands as I happen to be fashion-backwards.

Yolk is a real beauty of a novel. It was funny, moving, whip-smart, and brutally honest.
If you are looking for a more mature YA novel that explores sisterhood, mental health, love, heartbreak, and Korean-American identity, look no further (I just finished this and I already want to re-read it).

Confession time: I actually didn’t think that I would like this novel. A few years ago I tried reading Permanent Record but I wasn’t vibing with it and ended up DNFing it and writing a high-key mean review (which I have now deleted and feel really shitty about posting in the first place). Choi please accept my apologies. As Madonna once said: Je suis désolé, lo siento, ik ben droevig, sono spiacente, perdóname.

my rating: ★★★★★

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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