Laurinda. Alice Pung.

by Alice Pung
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My Bookshelves:  asian, australian-author, coming-of-age, contemporary, literature

Now I know why this book can be considered a piece of literature. It’s not just fiction. It’s literature. So in effect, I should be rating this 5 stars but I won’t because there are many things about this book that frustrated me enough that it marked itself down one star.

Let’s see…
In the beginning I had a really hard time reading this piece of fiction. I have read one Alice Pung book before this one, and I have always wanted to read her first piece of creative fiction, Unpolished Gem. However, both of those books are memoirs, little pieces of life, creatively expressed in a book. Laurinda on the other hand, is not like that, even though many aspects of it reflect sentiments I find familiar in her memoir.

Now, firstly, this is written in first person pov. The premise is not so fascinating, and the contents, so-so. it took me a lot of effort to push through the 335 pages–the size of the copy I have, makes it seem like 400 pages. So admittedly, the size of this thing, was unacceptably big, and as a booklover, my previous phrase is unacceptable too. I should love big books, and often I do–if the book is engaging enough. Laurinda is an engaging book. It’s colourful and abundant with lots of raw story telling material, yet for the majority of the book, I kept asking myself, what’s missing here?

The truth is, Laurinda isn’t missing anything. Not glaringly anyway. It just begins awfully slow. Plus for me, I was contending with three things: 1) Looking for Alibrandi — the author of the book, I do believe Alice Pung admires, and also she admires that particular work in the same way that I admire it; 2) Her previous works; and 3) myself.

Once upon a time, I had a little rule about reading multiple works by the one author. I found it repetitive, and disenchanting to read more than one work by the same author. Coincidentally, Melina Marchetta was also one of the first few authors whose books encouraged me to read more than one of her books. With Alice Pung, I did struggle with this. Not to mention, in hindsight, I should have considered reading Laurinda first, then trying out Pung’s memoirs. My reason: Laurinda begins with sounding like a memoir. It can’t be helped though, because it’s written in first pov, and not only that, epistle style as well. Lucy Lam writes to her friend ‘Linh’ detailing all the events of her first year at Laurinda, a prestigious school for girls in which Lucy had won a scholarship for. She writes 4 letters throughout the course of the book, one for each term (in Aus, we have four terms, two per semester, and we begin in Feb fyi.) So in the beginning, my head had to work its way around ‘Alice Pung’s Memoirs’ and ‘Alice’s YA fiction work: Laurinda‘. It was admittedly quite difficult, and I had so much trouble feeling Lucy’s character, which in itself, was a whole other situation.

Lucy Lam, to say she was an interesting character to begin with, is an overstatement. She was admittedly very boring, very ordinary, very familiar to me. She was also, a great contrast to her friend Linh who was more vibrant and lively than she was. Throughout the course of the book, this becomes more clear, and sometimes, I don’t know if I should commend or condemn Alice Pung for this little piece of literary genius. It frustrated me a whole lot. And I even went and grabbed my copy of Looking for Alibrandi off my shelf to see the difference in writing. Where Marchetta begins simply, dropping us right into the middle of a scene involving Josephine, a nun, and a every day girl’s magazine, Pung goes a different route. She sets the scene, decorating the pages with descriptions of Lucy’s life before Laurinda, and while we’re fed dialogue immediately in Looking for Alibrandi, in Laurinda, we’re given lots and lots of descriptions. This indicates two things about both books. I know people who have loved Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi have recommended this little gem. But to me, I don’t think this is a given. To me, there are two very differing styles here, and while you might love Looking for Alibrandi, Laurinda might look lacklustre next to it. On the other hand, for others, this book really hits the mark. It just depends on where you’re coming from. And for me, while I did struggle a lot with the beginning, I made it to the end, and I rated it 4 stars too, which says something, since at the very beginning, this was only just making it to 3 stars. Because Lucy Lam is an interesting character, and it takes a whole book to understand her. As an Asian-Australian–born here, and not moved–I can understand her character, and I hated how much I could understand her. She was an uncharacteristic Asian, and yet characteristically Asian throughout the whole book. Quiet, accepting, scholarly, lonely. I recognise so many of the scenes within the book, it frustrated me, but for very different reasons. And when Katie tells Lucy at the end exactly what she should do, I had to say, I was very interested then. It was about time she saw the truth!

When I look at Looking for Alibrandi and Laurinda, I obviously could not help but compare, as I have said earlier. Here you have two different authors writing about girls multicultural situations confronting their own cultural identities–I use cultural here, but it’s not just about ethnicity! But the premise is different. With Alibrandi, we expected a romance and we got one. With Laurinda though, we got a girl in a new school trying to find her place in reality. There is no romance in Laurinda.

Both books are written really well, but they are incomparable. Both authors have different styles, and there is no justice to either author by comparing them. Melina Marchetta is the kind of author whose style I will always love. Her writing is emotive gold. It’s beautiful, and wonderfully enthralling. It isn’t hard to get into the head of any of her main characters or flow with any of the stories she tells. Alice Pung on the other hand, has a different way with her words. She is a describer. She writes paragraphs, and it’s always about the internal monologue. She writes well too, but her style is different. As a first time writer of YA fiction, Laurinda was a good beginning, a reasonable debut. If, for its purpose, it is supposed to be a literary book, then yes, it is an excellent piece of fiction. But if, if it was aimed to please a general audience of contemporary YA lovers, it has its work cut out for it. It just lacks that extra spark that would make Laurinda a sparkling diamond in the rough for Australian Young Adult Contemporary Fiction.

The plot premise in this book is really good. I liked it. But it didn’t stand out much. Advertised as a story of Lucy Lam who is eventually courted by ‘the Cabinet’, a trio of girls who are school royalty, and who seemingly control the whole school, and who reminded me of the girls in Mean Girls (like seriously, they really did), it took a long time to actually get to the ‘courting’ part. And even then, there was very little courting happening. It wasn’t so much courting, but rather, almost immediate assimilation within the Cabinet. In many ways, I think this could have been paced a bit better, but on the other hand, it was okay. It didn’t throw a massive wrench in the whole story, and it’s about the part that gets the whole story rolling. And it’s only then that we really start seeing the real Lucy Lam shine through. It’s when she starts to realise who she is, and how she relates to the other characters in the story, and also, who she wants to be in the end. But at first, I had to defeat myself in order to really appreciate this book. And when it’s very difficult when the beginning of Laurinda is a very slow read. It takes perhaps a 100 pages before I start to feel more comfortable with the story. Perhaps, it is because while I have never lived a life like Lucy’s, I have experienced switching schools often enough to be able to empathise with Lucy’s feelings when she first arrives at Laurinda. She was a little slower than me though–unfortunately I was a clique jumper, jumping around, always looking for a place where I belonged, and in the end, I found out a lot about how and what people were like. I can really understand Lucy’s feelings about her old school: Christ Our Saviour. That’s how I felt about my last and final highschool. It was a multicultural place, a sanctuary, that even if it has its imperfections, it was also undeniably perfect. So in Lucy’s memories of her old school, I find realism and truth. I also find the portrayal undeniably honest–that fantasy is real, regardless of any imperfections, because to Lucy, it was real, it was safe.

Unfortunately, my favourite line is located at the end of the book, but still, here it is:

They were not good. They were not bad. They were just nice.

As a literary novel, I really liked the portrayal of an Asian-Australian girl. One who is portrayed in a story that isn’t really about their ethnicity, rather about something else. One reason why I wanted to read this book. But that wasn’t what really caught my attention. What caught my attention were the little references to Pygmalion and Emma. Loved those. There’s a lot more here I could say about its literariness, but I won’t go into details.

Overall for Alice Pung, this is a good debut into the world of YA Contemporary fiction. As a writer, it would be interesting to see what else she writes. I think, she has yet to bring out a book that really wows me off my face. So far, impressive, but I’m waiting. As a suggestive read, this is definitely an interesting one.

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