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CONTENT WARNING: racial slurs, violence, blood

I read this as part of my monthly buddy read of books we own with Becky @ Becky’s Book Blog, and it wound up being one of the best ones we’ve read so far!

I was absolutely thrilled by the premise of a young Chinese American girl who is enthralled by Hollywood and becomes incredibly focused on making her dream into reality. And it doesn’t glamorize the industry—Hollywood in this book is a terrifying place, where becoming a star can cost you everything.

Luli is well aware of her place in the world. She grew up in a household that wasn’t well-off, and spent all her free time taking care of her younger sister and working in her parents’ laundry. But after seeing a movie at the cinema, she was hooked. When she stumbled onto a movie set and got a tiny part in the film, it set the tone for the rest of her life.

“I needed a silver screen to give me a dream, but she had painted her own out of nothing at all.”

But Luli faces some major hurdles to becoming a movie star. Although she is beautiful, she’s Chinese American, and that’s not a good thing in 1920s Hollywood. She’s smart, stubborn, and ambitious, not to mention a lesbian. And while we see those things as just who people are, they were all impediments to her progress.

“She might have had the words for it, but I didn’t. They locked up in my throat, about being invisible, about being alien and foreign and strange even in the place where I was born, and about the immortality that wove through my parents’ lives but ultimately would fail them. Their immortality belonged to other people, and I hated that. I couldn’t say that, so instead I simply struck.”

She’s willing to toss out a lot to achieve her dream, and only realizes the costs later. When she signs up with a studio, she’s locked into a contract that basically owns her, body and soul. She’s aware of the people who haven’t made it, and what happened to them, as well as the consequences of fame for others. But it doesn’t stop her from pressing on to meet her goal. The closer she gets, the more she realizes what she’s passing up on.

“I was alone, but as I stood in the eye of my own private hurricane, untouched by any of the people around me, I wondered if I had ever been anything but.”

Luli starts her career with some demands: no maids, no funny talking, and no fainting flowers. This reduces her prospects, and she’s finally cast as a monster. Which is the thing that propels her to stardom, and reflects who she is better than any other role ever could. She’s not exactly one of those women that you fall in love with right away, but her character was so honest and true to herself about who and what she is, that I couldn’t help but love her and want to see her succeed in film, life, and love.

“I would never be adorable and bubbling over with praise for myself and others. Instead, I was still and cold, and I had to hope that was enough.”

The story is set in the 1920s, although it still touches on relevant topics in today’s society and Hollywood. Luli is tenacious and has a great sense of who she is right from the start, so she fights against getting lost in the industry. The portrayal of various people as literal monsters had me incredibly intrigued right from the start, and all I wanted was for Lulu to overcome her challenges and succeed. However, I couldn’t help but notice that there was one error in factual information, about a character having a growing dependence to benzodiazepines, which wouldn’t be invented for at least 3 more decades. Even so, it didn’t affect my enjoyment of this book, because this was probably one of the most amazing books that I’ve read this year, and it’s definitely motivating me to read Vo’s other books that have been on my TBR for far too long.