Beauty by Christina Chiu (review by Haley Papa)

by | May 30, 2020 | Blog, Reviews

Prior to writing Beauty, Christina Chiu could previously be seen published in Tin HouseThe New Guard Literary Review, Washington Square, World Wide Writers, and elsewhere. She won the Asian American Literary Award for Troublemaker, which was also nominated for the Stephen Crane First Fiction Award, and was chosen for the Alternate Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club & QPB. She also is one of the founding members of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and curates and co-hosts the Pen Parentis Literary Salon, as well as residing on the Boards of the New York Writers Workshop and the Pen Parentis Literary Salon. With her newest novel, Beauty, out now, she leaps into a world of fashion and one woman’s determination and ambition, and how tradition and the struggles of society affect a woman’s life.

Christina Chiu’s Beauty is a fascinating look into the fictionalized world of an up-and-coming designer, Amy Wong, who struggles to prove herself at work, in marriage, and in motherhood. Amy faces prejudice and sexism from rivals and her husbands, as well as her own self-loathing as she fights to achieve her ambitions. It’s hard not to see Amy as a real person when presented countless of scenarios we see today in everyday life: abuse, lack of creativity, the struggles of motherhood to two very different children, and the disappointment of never living up to what your parents’ expectations. Beauty redefines not only the term “beautiful”, but the various connotations used against Amy as a woman struggling to make something of herself. 

Chiu does not shy away from the traumatic elements within the story of Amy Wong’s life. She uses brutal honesty from Amy’s years as a teen to a woman breaking out on her own to an older, seasoned woman, and at times it becomes difficult to read certain sections in chapters because of candid depictions of abuse and sexual assault and self-hatred. However, this isn’t to say that Chiu paints Amy as a victim and pities her; in fact, Chiu appears to relish in Amy’s anger and discomfort and her tears, and even when Amy makes mistakes, she picks herself back up with unflinching resolution. In one instance, when Amy is cornered by one of her ex-husbands, she recalls feeling weak and “stupid” against his insults – and then it strikes her that “Only, I’m not trapped, I suddenly realize [ … ] Shame. What a powerful weapon.” Amy gathers herself together to defend herself, not with fists or words, but with support and her wits, and that is what makes her so compellingly written as a protagonist. She is far from perfect, and the trauma she experiences is brutal and heart-breaking, but she still fights back. She fights where she can because she knows she has to if she wants to survive.

The use of present tense, while at times stilted and offering little reflection, is also well done in moving the reader through time and Amy’s introspection. Especially given later chapters with her relationships with her sons and husbands, most scenes flowed smoothly and relayed a sense of suspense while conveying Amy’s frustrations with life and herself. Her relationship with herself is perhaps most intriguing by the end of the novel, as Amy looks back on her life and wonders at her own ambition and beauty. The narration is fast-paced, which works well with the raw and blunt voice of Amy throughout the novel. The honesty rendered in unspoken words in scenes of trauma or emotion is subtle but vivid, and Chiu does an excellent job at creating humanized characters and relationships because of this, even for the terrible cycles of abuse we see with both husbands. Her descriptions and musings also beautifully reflect Amy’s journey to accepting herself and her own flaws: “If I don’t wear them, they sit there and sit there. So then when I do wear them, there’s dust all over. No one else can see it, but it’s there like this invisible cloak all around me.”

Speaking of beauty, the definition of the word varies throughout the novel. Amy is called beautiful and uses the term to describe fashion and other women, and the connotations utilized parallel Amy’s path to accepting both the positive and negative. Beauty is Amy’s struggle to fit into the fashion industry, her struggle to network and make a name for herself outside of the men in her life. Beauty is the poor decisions Amy makes, her insecurities and self-doubt. Beauty is her love for her sons, her feelings toward her husbands, her desire to be loved. Beauty by Christina Chiu is beautiful, for all the good and bad it may contain, and it is original and alive.

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