Book review: Rough-start novel with redemptive, touching finish

  • "Mike in Real Life" by Emiko Jean.

    "Mike in Real Life" by Emiko Jean. Courtesy of William Morrow

Posted8/14/2022 7:20 AM

"Mika in Real Life" by Emiko Jean (William Morrow)

Mika Suzuki is a directionless, 35-year-old Japanese woman with a big secret: She gave her daughter up for adoption at 19.


Emiko Jean's latest novel, "Mika in Real Life," takes place as Mika takes on a major transformation, starting with reconnecting with her daughter, Penny. Eventually, Mika has to confront the events that led her to being a hopelessly single, constantly laid-off disappointment to her mother, and figure out how to have a relationship with her own child whom she hasn't spoken to since the day Penny was born.

In an effort to not look like such a loser, Mika begins weaving a tapestry of lies to create the life of Mika 2.0; who she wants to be and maybe could have been. Mika gives her life an undeserved glow-up that will certainly blow up in her face.

It's hard to enjoy when things are going right for Mika because you know all the sugar glass will splinter into shards sooner or later. The whole time you're thinking of ways for Mika to come clean because it's the only and obvious solution from the start. Mika's reasons for lying in the first place are not particularly compelling anyway.

Fortunately, that train wreck only takes about a third of the book before moving on to greener pastures. The novel picks up when Jean reveals Mika in real life -- not just a Mika that's honest, but one that is a better, rounder character. She's more believable.

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When Mika decides to be honest with herself and others, she begins to process her life. "Mika in Real Life" explores universal issues -- like finding happiness and the challenges of being a parent -- as well as nuanced ones, like the Suzuki family's particular strains of trauma: her mother being uprooted to a foreign land, Mika's own experiences that led to her being pregnant and giving up art, and Penny's pursuit of identity as a Japanese American raised by white parents in Ohio.

The Mika of the second half of the book makes for far more pleasant company. She isn't perfect but has a semblance of balance in her life and strives to be someone and do something.

For the first bit, "Mika in Real Life" relies on its interesting premise to drag readers through flat predictability and buckshot-style writing that turns everything into an opportunity for flashbacks and exposition.

But I'm grateful for Jean's tenacity, because it's worth wading through the rough start to get to the novel's redemptive, touching ending. "Mika in Real Life" has heart, and it touched mine.

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