DISCLOSURE: I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I’ve talked a little about my general disdain for memoirs on this blog before:
- Some are really poorly written (like this one).
- Some are a little too schmaltzy and trite for my taste, despite seemingly interesting subject matter (like this one).
- And some just plain suck (see my discussion of unacceptable fluff here).
Another reason I’m not a huge fan of the genre: memoirs often reek of hubris. In order to write a memoir (i.e., an entire book about how awesome/interesting/great your life and experiences have been), you have to think that you’re a little more awesome/interesting/great than everyone else.
You may have seen this blog post on Wait But Why? that blew up on Facebook a couple of months ago. It’s called “7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook,” and it’s both spot-on and hilarious. The #1 way to be insufferable on Facebook is (you guessed it): “The Brag.”
“The Brag” runs so rampant on Facebook that it has to be broken into three subcategories:
1a) The “I’m Living Quite the Life” Brag
Description: A post making your life sound great, either in a macro sense (got your dream job, got your degree, love your new apartment) or a micro sense (taking off on an amazing trip, huge weekend coming up, heading out on a fun night with friends, just had an amazing day)
Guess who just got her TFA acceptance letter!!!
[. . .]
1b) The Undercover Brag
Description: Like the blatant brags above except behind a frail disguise. This includes all humblebrags, indirect brags, brags disguised as a rant, etc.
Apparently they now give PhDs to frauds and drunks. What a time to be alive!
[. . .]
1c) The “I’m In a Great Relationship” Brag
Description: A public expression of your extremely positive feelings for your significant other or an anecdote signifying the perfection of your relationship.
A surprise trip to Vermont for two nights in a cabin. All I can say is Wow, what a boyfriend.
I bring this up because here’s what I’ve realized: memoirs are basically just looooong Facebook status updates. I challenge you to pick up a memoir—any memoir—and try not to find at least one example of “The Brag” therein. And, if you’ve struck memoir gold, you’ll find all three.
Where the Peacocks Sing employs all three subcategories of “The Brag.” Frequently. Here are some shining examples:
- “My best buddies from Hong Kong, Katherine and Luc, also journalists, got up to make a speech in tandem. They told the story—now Hong Kong legend—of how Ajay and Alison had chanced to meet, crossing continents and cultures to do so.” (1a and 1c)
- “When I won Amnesty International’s Magazine Feature Writing Award for my cover story about child prostitution in Southeast Asia—a story I had worked on for months—I knew my life was moving along a new path.” (1a)
- “As an American journalist based in Hong Kong, my life was anything but placid, predictable, or comforting. My cell phone buzzed every two minutes; I had a half-dozen deadlines to meet good friends (most of whose last names I somehow never quite learned) . . . Lunch was often a bowl of noodles eaten standing up; dinner, cocktail party hors d’oeuvres and a lethal gin and tonic.” (1b)
- “Frankly, though, I was too busy jetting off to Malaysia with Nigel and fending off advances from a number of Chinese film directors and producers to pay any mind to a journalist in faraway India.” (1a)
- “[B]ut I knew that some part of them couldn’t believe that the magazine’s rough-and-tumble Delhi correspondent had captured the heart of the entertainment editor, a woman who had Michelle Yeoh and Jackie Chan on her speed dial.” (1a)
- “I glanced over at Ajay quietly reading a book. It never seemed to matter to him what we had or what we didn’t have. He was happy, it seemed, just to be here with me.” (1c)
- “It’s not like my life in L.A. was awful. I mean, I think lots of young girls dream of having what I had—a great job at a magazine, a cool producer boyfriend who loved me, invitations to amazing parties.” (1a)
As you can see, “The Brag” has the same effect in a memoir as it does on Facebook: it is insufferable.
Fortunately, the book as a whole is not insufferable. It’s actually a sweet and engaging cross-cultural love story. Alison Singh Gee is a Chinese-American living and working for Asiaweek in Hong Kong. She fancies herself cosmopolitan, a socialite, and a jet-setter. She meets Ajay, who is also a journalist, at a work conference. Ajay is kind and humble (i.e., seemingly not Alison’s type). When Ajay returns to India after the conference, he and Alison keep in touch via email and letters, and soon their relationship blossoms into a modern-day epistolary romance. Ajay moves to Hong Kong to be with Alison and proposes soon thereafter. Much to Alison’s surprise, she finds out that Ajay grew up in a one-hundred room haveli. She travels to India for the first time with her betrothed, where she suffers from culture shock but ends up enlightened.
The book was named National Geographic Traveler’s Book of the Month in February for good reason. There are vivid and fascinating descriptions of both bustling Hong Kong and Ajay’s family’s languishing haveli in India.
As she goes on her first journey of India, she describes some of the things that she learns from Ajay, his family, and her travels. A few examples:
- The “three categories of body and mind types” in ayurveda, “the centuries-old Hindu system of holistic health care”;
- The Hindu belief in reincarnation and the occasional person’s ability to recognize his or her family members from a prior life;
- That every Indian woman has her own unique paratha, “a savory wheat pancake often eaten for breakfast.” She spices them in her own special way, and the size and texture of the paratha is distinct to each cook “depending on the size of her palms, the shape of her fingers, and the strength with which she kneads the dough”;
- The Indian caste system from Brahmins to Untouchables and the necessity of each person to be aware of his or her place in the social order.
I have never been to India, so I liked these cultural descriptions—they were informative and interesting.
And, as an added bonus, her discussions of Hong Kong brought back some great memories for me, like this description of high-tea at the Peninsula Hotel:
Since I moved to Hong Kong, the Peninsula had become my Tiffany store window—the place to which I ran whenever I was feeling low. I adored the hotel’s ridiculous opulence—the doormen in their white pillbox hats, the monogrammed teacups, the currant scone and tiny crusted sandwiches arranged just so on top of tiered plates, the string quartet playing from the balcony. It was the epitome of Hong Kong luxury . . .
Rating: 2.5/5 👳
The book is separated into three sections. The first is an extended Facebook-status brag and was pretty annoying. I found myself rolling my eyes a lot and thinking she was a little too pompous for her own good. Some of this, I think, is put on in an effort to accentuate her profound growth (in air quotes) later in the book.
The second part of the book describes her first trip to India. This is the most interesting part of the book. She still comes off as a little bratty and obnoxious (like when she refuses to eat her future mother-in-law’s parathas), but this is where her horizons are broadened and her eyes are opened. This is also where she learns about India and shares those lessons.
The third part of the book is where she wraps things up with a happy little bow. She’s accepted into Ajay’s family. They get married. Etc. It’s nice and quaint and fine.
All in all, Where the Peacocks Sing is a very quick read that is fun and light. And excessively braggy.
Who should read it: Emily (i.e., people who studied abroad in India and are interested in India and Hindu culture); people who enjoy reading Facebook status updates–even the braggy ones.