This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura
Another book from one of those blissful trips to Barnes & Noble where my grandmother and great aunt spoil me even though I’m way too old for that.
“Katsuyamas never quit, but seventeen-year-old CJ doesn’t even know how to get started. She’s never lived up to her mom’s type A ambition, and she’s perfectly happy just helping her aunt, Hannah, at their family’s flower shop...She’s finally found something she might be good at.
Until her mom announces she’s planning to sell the shop—to the McAllisters, the same people who swindled CJ’s family, and many others, out of their property when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II. Suddenly a rift threatens to splinter CJ’s family, her friends, and their entire Northern California community. And for the first time, CJ is finding the strength to step up and fight.”
This book tackles the relevant and politically sensitive issue of redressing historical wrongs. Do not confuse my review of this book with my view on the issue. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about this book. To reflect my mixed feelings, I will structure this review differently from my previous reviews.
Things I liked
- CJ is not a violin-playing math prodigy like 99% of other Asians depicted in books/movies/TV shows. I appreciate the author’s combating the model minority stereotype.
- The beautiful popular people are decent human beings. The book does not fall into the Mean Girls trap of making villains of the social elite. They make hurtful mistakes, yes, but they are well-rounded characters whose motivations, however misguided, are understandable. I also love the author’s use of the hashtag #winning to describe them.
- CJ’s family members all react to the situation differently. I love how even though each family member has strong opinions, they still love and support each other.
- Owen. I can’t help falling for the nerdy history buff.
Things I didn’t like
- CJ’s growth arc is both erratic and flat. CJ tackles so many internal personal issues it’s exhausting even to list them—letting go of her bitterness toward the #winners, navigating relationships with guys, smoothing the friction in her mother-daughter relationship, discovering her own passions, developing her identity as a Japanese American, and deciding how her family history affects her present. Each issue could be a book by itself. By cramming all of them into one story, the author ensures CJ makes minimal progress in any of them.
- Lack of long-lasting transformation. CJ went from unenthused and mediocre to passionate and motivated to disillusioned and directionless. Even that arc was lost in the mix of all the other issues pushed in the plot. At the end, she still doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life.
- CJ comes off as a passive character. Many of her actions/reactions are downright petty. Yes, she is like many teens in that she is caught in a whirlwind of confusion, but by the end of the book, she should have grown more in at least one area.
Things I liked
- Focus on the protagonist. Even while addressing a wider issue that applies to many people groups across the country, the author maintained the focus on CJ’s family and their diverse reactions.
- Finding Similarities. I liked how the author explained the concept of “white savior” by comparing racism to homophobia and by providing the example of a straight ally monopolizing a Pride rally. In that context, it was a great example.
- SPOILER ALERT: I like who CJ ends up dating.
Things I didn’t like
- Too many subplots. As I mentioned above, too many things happen at once to develop all of them.
- Emphasis on CJ’s previous sexual exploits. While the subplot provided minor additional characterization of the mother-daughter relationship, it had minimal impact on the overall plot and was mostly an afterthought.
- Suguira tried to advocate for too many things at once. Life is complicated, and I agree that different issues intermingle, but this book had so many hot button political feuds raging at once, none of them had any power. Suguira wasn’t telling a story; she was preaching. The book read more like a bunch of shallow slogans marching by at a political protest than a heartfelt conversation about issues that affect real people. I couldn’t care about the issues because I wasn’t given time to process how they affected the characters. I couldn’t care about the characters because the author bogged down the story with messaging rather than developing them into relatable people.
- Lack of closure. The book focused on CJ’s personal development, so I liked that the author left some loose ends with the larger issues. However, the lack of transformation in CJ meant the ending fell flat. Had CJ developed a defined sense of who she was and what she wanted, the last chapter would have satisfied readers. As written, it lacks closure.
The author’s witty and ironic voice fits with her protagonist and speaks well to modern teens. Her use of hashtags throughout the prose added a touch of pop culture relevance.
The cover. The cover is the reason I bought the book. My grandmother is a gardener, so flowers immediately catch my attention. The cover communicated the genre well and included a nod to the “flower magic” in the book. I love learning about flower symbolism and had already been researching it before I bought this book. The author includes a list at the end to help readers keep track.
The history. I love history, and I would have liked for this story to be told with parallel timelines, bouncing back and forth between CJ’s grandfather’s experience and her own. This would have provided unfamiliar readers with the historical context. Experiencing the oppression through CJ’s grandfather’s tale would allow readers to better relate to CJ’s anger.
This book tried to do for Japanese Americans what The Hate You Give did for Black Americans, but too many subplots and CJ’s lack of personal development led to it falling far short of the mark. While I liked many aspects of this book, I’d recommend others first.
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