Reviewed by Jasmine Sov, age 16
Private Label by Kelly Yang
Serene Li longs to design her own couture dresses, but she’s stuck working as an intern for her mom’s fashion brand. After her mother is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Serene’s jolted into leadership of the company, where she faces a board of investors who refuse to believe a teen can run the company. In addition, she’s searching for her father, who departed for Beijing long ago, although looking for him goes against her mother’s wishes. Meanwhile, Lian Chen just moved from Beijing and is already having an awful time. At school, he faces discrimination and his name is mispronounced in every way imaginable. At home, his parents pressure him to get accepted into MIT and pursue engineering, but secretly, he wants to explore stand-up comedy. In starting the Chinese Club at his school, he figures he can use the time for stand-up practice but everything changes the moment Serene walks in. However, as the two grow closer, they face challenges in several aspects of their lives that can tear them apart as easily as they came together.
From the beginning, Private Label discusses various social issues, for example, the way people of color are continuously pressured to conform to an “all-American” image. It utilizes Asian family tropes (Lian’s parents’ dynamic, especially his mom’s) to discuss how parental beliefs conflict with the beliefs of their children, which was executed surprisingly well. Although I appreciated these opportunities for discussion, other aspects of the book—especially the relationships between characters—fell short. After just a few Chinese Club meetings, Serene and Lian were best friends, and romance quickly ensued. This, paired with how it took nearly 80% of the novel for Serene to realize her friends and boyfriend were actually terrible people, was quite unrealistic. Private Label provides good commentary on social issues, but frustration over the cast of characters may push readers away.
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