It is an indisputable fact that there can never be enough rom-coms in this world. Subsumed into the usual doom and gloom of social and political affairs, we need some frivolity this year. No, not the superficial, vapid kind. The type that alleviates our burdens, that halts the encroaching stresses. The type that sweeps us into the stratosphere and beyond, if only for a few hours — and Dating Makes Perfect, by Pintip Dunn, delivers just that.
With entertaining and accessible prose, the story explores the trials and tribulations of adolescent love, told through Orrawin “Winnie” Tech (short for Techavachara). The younger of older, twin sisters, Winnie is used to being relegated to the side in matters of beauty, brilliance and grace (especially grace). Yet, the trio is stunned when their parents — who are, as typical with Asian American parents, overly invested in their children’s love lives — make an unprecedented decree: Winnie, though she is still in the midst of her senior year, will date. Furthermore, she will date whomever they choose, whenever they choose and however they choose.
Mourning the twins’ lack of marriage prospects, who were granted permission to date only after they graduated, Winnie’s parents resolve to do differently by her. Make no mistake — this is not a free-for-all to have flings, it is opportunity to practice under strictly controlled conditions. But any semblance of a plan threatens to unravel when her parents reveal the subject of this experiment: Mat Songsomboon, her childhood friend and current nemesis.
The rest is history. Dunn guides us through the winding road of Mat and Winnie’s relationship, a path both fraught with misunderstandings and gilded with heart-warming humor. Winnie’s identity receives an overhaul throughout the story, as she wrestles with fears related to her family and her own insecurities. In Dating Makes Perfect, Dunn not only captures the scenic parts of life, but also acknowledges the dilapidation in a holistic portrayal of what it means to be an Asian American teenager today.
A realistic, hopelessly relatable protagonist
Enter Winnie Tech, first of her name in the Hall of Fame as “The Only Tech Sister to Date in High School.” For those who are weary of static, one-dimensional Bella Swans within the YA industry, look no further. Winnie Tech is many things — a Thai cuisine aficionado, a future Economics major moonlighting as an artist, a Nerf gun bearing klutz. But most importantly, she is a human, with misgivings and longings that can resonate within all of us.
— Maggie Harris (@MaggieHasWords) August 20, 2018
She may harbor some vengefulness towards a certain family friend, and she may demonstrate impaired judgement sometimes, but don’t we all? Winnie also loves her family and friends with a whole-heartedness, a tender devotion, that speaks volumes about her selflessness. She is sensible and shrewd, creative and clumsy. And she is unapologetic in her strength, easily asserting herself in situations that might make others clam up. A reader’s empathy is the marker of a developed character — and I laughed at her social ineptitude, then ached with her when she confronted her desires.
Platonic and familial relationships that don’t take a backseat
While rom-coms have a tendency to revolve the entire plot line on the romance, Dunn manages to weave an intricate tapestry including other equally important relationships. Our lives are never fixated on a single point, and Dating Makes Perfect exemplifies that.
Winnie’s best friend, Kavya, does not exist to merely prop up Winnie, but as an individual with a distinct personality. Audacious and confident where Winnie is uncertain, their friendship is a stable piece of flotsam that Winnie returns to time and time again. Characterized by mischief and unconditional support, I appreciated their interactions with each other, and how easily Winnie could confide in Kavya.
Moreover, Dunn neatly fleshes out every member of Winnie’s family, tight-knit yet never clannish. My personal favorite is Winnie’s father, who studiously reads articles on thriving and follows the hug-giving directive to a T. Who gave Winnie gloves to wear in a stern but well-meaning gesture to protect her from — gasp — physical contact with a boy. Together, the family, despite their differences, cocooned me in an atmosphere of warmth and affection.
Culturally savvy elements
I must caution you not to read this book on an empty stomach. If you do, well, that way lies madness. As a YA book with a cast composed almost entirely of Asian Americans, Dating Makes Perfect is a necessary addition to a genre notorious for its lack of diversity. The book features an array of Thai dishes that had me salivating, as well as Thai conventions that have weighty influence in the story.
Although I am Chinese American, the culture clash that takes place between Winnie’s visions of her life and her parents’ are painfully accurate to all Asian Americans. From the light-hearted aspects — such as the holy trinity of law, medicine and economics — to the more somber ones, like her mom’s pragmatic yet impersonal view of marriage, Winnie’s problems felt intimately close to mine. Her ideals reflected mine. I felt that my experiences as an Asian American girl were validated, and it was almost cathartic.
Tension-filled, gripping romance
Last, but most certainly not least, is the classic thrill that comes with a hate-to-love romance trope. Only, this time it was more of a love-to-hate-to-love situation. On the surface, the witty banter and unfiltered remarks between Mat and Winnie seem to indicate an incompatible couple. If only it weren’t for the tells — the slight flickers of the gaze, the tiny details. Dunn dished these moments out sparingly but generously, and I lived for when the disguise came off.
Mat is a worthy opponent. Every barbed comment, every searing glare, he matches with equal force. Their collisions are fun to witness, but then a respite comes, and they circle each other cautiously, neither one willing to admit that they yearn to get closer. A constant push and pull. In the end, the gravity of their attraction wins out, and they meet with love instead of violence. Dunn choreographs this dance with flourishing strokes, with awkward kisses and dressing rooms and stolen glances. What a duet it was.
Final rating: 4 out of 5 compulsively readable stars.
Note: I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy in exchange for a fair, honest review.
Photo Courtesy of The Nerd Daily