Mia Tang thinks she's going to have the best year ever:1. She and her parents have a motel. 2. She gets to run the front desk. 3. She's finally getting somewhere with her writing. But, on a rollercoaster of challenges, Mia will need all her determination to hang on tight...
Reviewed by Sam Creighton
There are so many reviews that could be written about Front Desk. You could write a review of the searing indictment of racism in modern society. Or you might opt for the review of the heart-breaking but inspiring examination of how love and kindness can endure in the midst of poverty. Perhaps you choose to pen the review of the sharply honest account of the immigrant experience in America. Then again, you could go for the review of the beautifully emotional coming-of-age tale of a young girl claiming her identity. Another review could frame it as an insightful depiction of the inner workings and struggles of a writer. While one more could view it as a semi-tragic, semi-hopeful admission of how our parents can shape our lives. I’m going to keep it simple and write the review of perhaps the best book I have ever read.
Front Desk tells the tale of Mia, a young Chinese immigrant, who is determined to help her parents when they become managers of the Calivista motel, working for the hard, self-centred Mr Yao. They are paid barely enough to get by and Mia dreams of helping them finally break out of the cycle of poverty they have been stuck in since coming to America, clutching their dreams, each other and their last $200.
The book is about Mia but it is also about her parents and the assortment of ‘weeklies’ (long-term residents of the motel) who orbit around her. It is about Lupe, the Mexican immigrant who becomes Mia’s best friend, and it is about Jason, Mr Yao’s son who is in her class at school. This book, of course, has a narrative – a powerful and moving one – but it is about more than its story and it is about more than its characters; it is about the hardships people can face, the hopes they can hold onto and the power they can have when they come together.
Originally published in America in 2018, Kelly Yang’s incredible debut was brought to these shores this month by Knights Of and it is another triumph for a publisher known for its championing of exciting, important and distinctive voices. It is the first instalment of a series, the second of which (Three Keys) is already out, with the third arriving this year.
Front Desk, while entirely accessible, is highly political. It is incisive in its needling of society’s problems. From the systemic racism of the police to the prejudices within the education system – so entrenched that those practising them don’t even realise it. It forces us to confront the casual comments and opinions that those with power feel entitled to have but which deny agency to those they are about. It shines a blinding light on this hidden world that is everyday for whole sections of society. It also turns this glare onto the emptiness of the promises handed to many immigrants when they come to the shores of America, in search of a future that is already in the past. Interestingly on this point, Mia’s parents never regret their move and reflect on the hardships of the Cultural Revolution and the China they left behind. Doubts do creep in for Mia towards the end when she hears from a cousin who explains the rapid changes in China and the quick accumulation of wealth enjoyed by a chunk of the population. Once again though, in a theme that runs through the book, financial plenty goes hand in hand with a poverty of heart.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is its examination of the writer’s life. Writing is what Mia longs to do but she comes across many obstacles, some internal (her own lack of confidence and reticence to open up about her inner-most feelings), external (a teacher more interested in commas and capital letters than in what is actually written) and well-meaning (a mother, succumbing to her own insecurities, who tells her that she will never be able to compete with those for whom English is a native tongue). What the book also looks at is the power of writing, with Mia changing lives time and time again with her words. The most profound instance (incredibly drawn from Yang’s own life) is when she wrote a letter to an abusive employer – in the guise of a lawyer – and forced him to return the passports and IDs of his captive immigrant workforce. I’ve never seen a book that captures the compositional mindset so well, with Mia’s many letters shown with crossings out and edits and revisions, revealing how they developed from start to finish. This could be so useful for children to see in the classroom, dispelling the puzzling myth that writing is a one-shot activity. I’m already mentally planning lessons to look at why she might have made the changes she did.
Mia is the heroine that readers deserve and the role model we all want for our children. Her kindness, her empathy, her resilience, her hope and her attachment to her dreams make her someone you cannot help but root for. More than that though, her heart-on-the-sleeve vulnerability makes her someone you cannot help but love. Her journey towards self-knowledge and self-acceptance is very reminiscent of that of Ware in Sara Pennypacker’s Here in the Real World, which was absolutely my book of last year.
The characters around Mia are also wonderfully wrought. Her parents are heart-warming in their love for their daughter but also realistic in their flaws and frailty. The interactions between Mia and her mother about her future as a writer are frustrating and unfair and yet entirely understandable from the mother’s point of view. The moments with her father searching for rare pennies are beautiful in their tenderness but also tinged with desperation, as is his unjustified sense of failure over his family’s situation that sees him sacrifice himself over and over again. Lupe gives Mia an island of normalcy, a healthy friendship, within the choppy sea of her life. While Jason, Mr Yao’s son, goes on a fascinating cycle of damnation and redemption, dragged one way by his desire for his father’s elusive pride and in the opposite by Mia’s example and influence. A short story from his perspective would be fascinating as his whole psychological framework is shaken down throughout the book but, due to our focus on Mia, this is alluded to rather than explored. Even lines like Mia wondering if Mr Yao has always been the way he is hint at the stories behind the story. This is also true of the ‘weeklies’. While they all clearly have a past, Hank’s is the only one explored in the book, highlighting the racism he has suffered, the dignity he has maintained in the face of it and the resignation towards it that Mia shakes him out of.
All of these moments, within Mia’s life and in the lives of those around her, sing with honesty. This is because, as a note at the end of the book explains, they are drawn from Yang’s own life. She spent years helping her own parents run motels and many of the episodes that punctuate the book are drawn directly from these experiences, from the shocking (finding her mother bloody by the side of the road after a robbery), to the inspiring (hiding and helping other struggling immigrants), to the fun (Mia’s joy at being able to demand things of adults while working the motel front desk).
This honesty and realism is so important come the ending which, in the hands of a lesser writer, could come across unbearably twee and sentimental. However, the unflinching bravery of the rest of the book gives it the grace it needs to pull off the allegorical nature of the closing chapters. Without giving away any spoilers it is the perfect rallying cry to reclaim the American Dream turning it into an almost Capra-esque fairy-tale. After a story in which selfish haves time and time again disenfranchised and belittled have-nots, the final flourish proves than even though we all live within society, its systems rely on our implicit consent and that when we all stand together, we can demand a new way of doing things.
Within the primary school, it is a book that staunchly belongs in year six but would work brilliantly as either a read-aloud or, for mature readers (with a lot of supportive discussion as they make their way through it), one they could tackle on their own. I strongly believe that this is not just a book that could be read in primary, but one that should be. To show how a book can be truthful, not just in the events it depicts but in the themes it explores, to show how we can feel empathy and joy and sadness all at the same time, to show that reading can make you feel like someone else and to show how you can climb out of a book a different person than you were when you fell in.
On a purely personal level, I’ve found it very hard to read in lockdown. While once I inhaled at least a book a week, it has been taken me several to hack through a single one. But with Front Desk its 350 pages raced by in just days. I completely and whole-heartedly loved reading this book and I can’t think of a stronger recommendation than that.
When I did finally, reluctantly, drink in the last word, I knew I wasn’t ready to end my stay at the Calivista, so the sequel is already ordered and on the way. Forget being a weekly, I plan on being a life-long resident of the Front Desk fan club.