Review: “Starfish” by Akemi Dawn Bowman

“…you can’t spend your life trying to make a starfish happy, because no matter what you do, it will never be enough.  They will always find a way to make themselves the center of attention, because it’s the only way they know how to live.”

So let me get this off my chest:  I spent half of the book being angry for Kiko and I spent half of the book being angry at Kiko.  I realize that maybe I’m not being fair.  Kiko has not had an easy life:  She has a mother who is manipulative and verbally abusive, she suffers from severe social anxiety, and she was sexually abused by her uncle as a child (not a spoiler, even though they build it up like one.  The pervert uncle is mentioned in the summary).  Oh yeah, and she’s half-Japanese living in Nebraska, her father is pretty much absent and she is still pining over a boy who moved away 8 years ago (yup, EIGHT).  Let’s be honest:  Kiko is a hot mess.

Her one beacon of light is Prism, an art school in New York that she is anticipating acceptance to.  When she fails to get in, her hopes of escaping her suffocating mother and her disgusting uncle disintegrate.  And then in swoops Jamie, her childhood friend from EIGHT years ago that she still has the hots for (I feel the need to capitalize the ridiculousness of it).  Jamie is literally Kiko’s savior.  He whisks her away to California where, “Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave”.   (from the summary)  Except here’s the problem.  She doesn’t.

Instead Kiko learns from her art mentor in California that her mother is a starfish.  And while you can make excuses for Kiko – her abusive mother, the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, her crippling social anxiety – the reality is that Kiko is a starfish as well.  Seriously, this is one of the first books I have read where I adamantly did not want the boy and the girl to end up together.  Jamie will never be happy with Kiko and I don’t feel as if he could ever come to fully understand Kiko’s social anxiety.  He is essentially her opposite – someone who enjoys parties and being surround by others.  Jamie even spends a majority of the book apologizing to Kiko because he offends her for some reason or another.  Kiko, on the other hand, expects people to understand her social anxiety and she feels that the other kids at school don’t like her because she’s half-Asian.  She’s weird.  She’s different.  But Susan Chang, another classmate, is half-Asian and she seems to be getting along just fine.  Kiko’s best friend Emery is weird and she’s OK as well.  Maybe people don’t like Kiko because she’s just not that likable of a person.

On top of all that, Kiko has the constant need for approval.  This comes in the form of her trying to elicit love from her farcical, villain of a mother.   It’s a repetitive struggle throughout the book of Kiko trying to win her mother’s approval and the inevitable “surprise” when her mother disappoints her, yet again.  Seriously, why are you so surprised?!  Every damn time, I swear.  I have a mother who is manipulative and I feel for Kiko, I really do, but the reality is that there still needs to be a Why.  I have a hard time believing that a woman who says such horrible things to her half-Japanese children would even be married to a Japanese man to begin with.  She couldn’t have always been this way.  And if she was, then what the hell does that say about Kiko’s father?  I want the mother’s backstory.  What changed in her life to make her so hateful, so bitter.  Words are tossed around like Psychopath.  Bi-polar.  Narcissistic.  But these loose diagnosis don’t really explain anything, they’re just trigger words.

And then there’s Kiko and Jamie.  Starfish would have been so much more powerful if they had not ended up together.  I mean, what sort of future could they possibly have?  Kiko is beyond broken and everything would be hunky dory until Jamie said something in the wrong way and Kiko was feeling extra vulnerable.  Because let’s be honest, it’s a toxic relationship, it’s going to happen.  You can say, “Oh but they’re in love” and to that I say, “But, WHY?!  Why are they in love?  Because they played some stupid game of either/or when they were children and it was just so amazing that just knew that they were were perfect for one another and that they were soulmates?”  Puh-leez.  Were you the same person at 18 as you were when you were 10?  I hung around plenty of boys in Fifth grade and when we grew up we had little to nothing in common.  What are the chances that Kiko and Jamie would reunite and just mesh so perfectly, especially given the fact that Kiko has so many issues.  She MUST be beautiful because, call me cynical, but no guy is going to put up with that level of drama for an average looking girl.

For me, the biggest disappointment with Starfish is that there is all this hype that Kiko will become braver and stand-up to her abusers.  The reality, though, is that she kind of just lives a stagnant existence throughout the books entirety.  She takes no control of her life.  When things finally do start to fall into place for her it is only due to others intervening in her life.  Were it not for Jamie and for her art mentor Hiroshi, then Kiko would still be the exact same person and in the exact same predicaments she was in on page 1.  She never actually learns to accept rejection or to stand on her own two feet.  My concern is that when Jamie finally decides that he’s tired of dealing with her, what then?  And how would a person like Kiko, someone who is so dependent on others, handle such a rejection?

by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Hardcover Edition
Published:  September 26, 2017
Pages:  340

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