Loveboat, Taipei is the young adult debut novel from author Abigail Hing Wen. It was published in early 2020 and follows the story of Taiwanese-American teenager, Ever Wong, and her trip to Taiwan to attend an immersive Mandarin study camp. It’s supposed to help Ever gain a greater appreciation for her culture, but as a passionate dancer, it’s the last thing that Ever wants to do during the summer. When she discovers that the program is known affectionately as ‘Loveboat’ and is more of a congregation of wild teens than anything else, she begins to taste freedom… and so her unforgettable summer begins.
Right off the bat, one of the central themes in the novel is Taiwanese culture. Just from the synopsis, readers develop the expectation that Loveboat, Taipei will explore multiple aspects of Taiwan both as a country as a whole and in the context of the Chien Tan camp; after all, it’s in the name. While the novel does give the reader insight into the various different sides of Taiwan (for example, when Ever ends up doing a shot that consists entirely of a freshly dead snake’s blood), I anticipated more than what I got. Although the story is very clearly set in Taiwan and places an overarching focus on that culture, something undoubtedly feels… missing.
One of the standouts of the novel was perhaps the representation of Asian culture and characters that it provided (most of the characters in this novel were Asian) and Ever’s complicated relationship with her parents.
I would die for my family if I needed to. I would emigrate to a foreign country and give up dancing to unwrap blood-soaked bandages every hour of every day if it meant food and shelter for my family. But because of them, I don’t have to.
The quote above perfectly sums this theme up within the novel. Ever understands the huge sacrifices that her parents have made and are still making in order for her to be where she is today, and she loves them fiercely because of that. Her parents are, however, overbearing and extremely restrictive. They aren’t encouraging of Ever’s passion for dancing because they would rather her focus on her academics so that she can get ahead in life. In their eyes, dancing is a fruitless activity that doesn’t guarantee their daughter any success in the future. Because Ever has grown up in a westernized environment, it is also important to them that she has an appreciation and a deeper understanding of her heritage. She feels guilty about disappointing her parents after everything they’ve done for her, so she caves into their expectations and reluctantly agrees to attend the camp.
This notion of heavy expectations makes Ever feel restricted and claustrophobic in a way, so when she gets the chance to live life by her own rules when she is in Taiwan, she is relieved and uses her newfound freedom to really discover who she is and what she wants in life. The way that the author has written the beginning of Ever’s character arc is truly wonderful and has the potential to resonate with thousands of teens around the world who are going through a similar complex.
Although Ever’s character arc sounded promising, the characterization in this novel was done fairly poorly. At the beginning, the reader is rooting for Ever, but as the story goes on, it becomes difficult to empathize with her. She makes some very selfish decisions that end up having negative effects on other characters. This can be incredibly frustrating at times, since as readers in this story we’re supposed to be cheering her on. The empathy that readers have for Ever slowly dwindles throughout the novel because of this.
For example, Rick is a character that acts as one of Ever’s love interests. He is portrayed as this perfect kid who meets all of his parent’s difficult expectations with ease and excels beyond them. He’s already having some minor issues with his girlfriend, but when he breaks up with her, he starts dating Ever as if his ex had ceased to exist. And the worst part is that Ever is completely okay with that. Ever’s friends from Loveboat end up turning on her at some point during the novel, without much hesitation it seems. The motivations for these aren’t explored in much depth. At the end of the day, her relationship with her parents is strengthened, but only somewhat. The story feels very disjointed in this way, and the Ever we see at the beginning of the novel doesn’t feel much different from the Ever at the end of it. There is minimal character growth.
In addition to semi-shallow characters, the last (and potentially the most important) thing that Loveboat, Taipei fails to do is explore the themes of suicide, depression, slut-shaming, cheating and beauty standards. These themes form the pillars of the novel, and yet they are mostly glossed over or resolved in ways that feel very casual and convenient. In today’s day and age, these themes are incredibly important to be talked about by people, especially today’s youth. The novel had so much potential to use this opportunity to not only spread awareness about these topics, but also educate the audience in a way that is genuine and realistic. Unfortunately, this opportunity was not taken.
At the end of the day, however, it is undeniable that Loveboat, Taipei is an impressive piece of work. The pacing was spot on and although the novel was lengthy – as in, over 400 pages for a young adult contemporary – the writing style was enjoyable and easy to follow. It’s a story about family responsibility, Asian stereotypes and teenage rebellion, and for a first-time author, it’s safe to say that for the most part, Abigail Hing Wen hit it out of the park.
It didn’t quite meet all of my expectations, but overall I’d rate the novel 4/5 stars and would recommend this to fans of young adult novels!
Loveboat, Taipei was released on January 7, 2020. You can purchase it at IndieBound or other book retailers.
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