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REVIEW: Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi

Dear Ms. Choi:

I had been wanting to read Hello Kitty Must Die for a while, and when I found out it was free at the Amazon Kindle store, I enthusiastically acquired and read it. In some ways, it was precisely what I expected: a dark, biting, satirical revenge fantasy. In other ways, though, it was both more and less than I expected. More in its twisted amorality, which was a refreshing change from so many heavy-handed moralistic crime stories. And less in the way I felt it failed to challenge many of the stereotypes it attempted to satirize.

Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela ChoiFiona Yu is a twenty-eight year old, Yale-educated law associate at a prestigious corporate firm in San Francisco. While she makes a six figure salary, she still lives with her Chinese parents, who own a Laundromat and continually set up their single daughter with an increasingly unappealing array of unmarried Chinese men, hoping to marry her off as soon as possible.

Contrary to her parents’ wishes, Fiona does not wish to marry or have children, and while she doesn’t particularly love practicing law, she does enjoy the myriad designer shoes and handbags she can buy. Despite the fact that she has no intention of letting any of the men her parents set her up with get past first base with her, Fiona is horrified to find out that she seems to have been born without a hymen. So horrified, in fact, that she decides to consult a vaginal reconstruction surgeon, who will charge her a mere $2500 for a new hymen.

Except that when the doctor steps into the examining room, he turns out to be one of Fiona’s best friends from Catholic school, a boy who taught Fiona how to stand up for herself to bullies and who was himself sent away when he set one girl’s hair aflame after she told everyone Sean was gay because he didn’t want to kiss her. Sean wasn’t gay; he just didn’t like hypersexualized females or bullies and was not averse to taking care of them in a not-so-polite way.

In the intervening years, Sean has become more proactive in dealing with his nemeses, while Fiona has become more and more reactive and passive aggressive. She used to get a kick scrambling up orders in her parents’ Laundromat, for example, to make it seem that a husband has been cheating on his wife. Unhappy couples, she felt, who needed a push toward divorce. Meeting Sean again reminds fires Fiona’s anger at her parents and their (in her mind) old-fashioned superstitions and cultural values. She is sick of being a “Hello Kitty,” a term for Asian American women who are seen as harmless and, ideally, as voiceless:

I hate Hello Kitty.

I hate her for not having a mouth or fangs like a proper kitty. She can’t eat, bite off a nipple or finger, give head, tell anyone to go and fuck his mother or lick herself. She has no eyebrows, so she can’t look angry. She can’t even scratch your eyes out. Just clawless, fangless, voiceless, with that placid, blank expression topped by a pink ribbon.

Poor Hello Kitty. Having to go around itchy, unlicked, un-scratched. Tortured by her own filth.

Like my mother.

Fiona doesn’t want to be like her mother, who “[a]fter nearly thirty years of marriage . . . still asks . . . for money to buy Payless shoes.” And in some ways she is not like her mother, at all. She has pictures of serial killers as her computer screen saver; her best friend is a serial killer who uses her to pick out his victims; and, at some point, Fiona refuses to tolerate the humiliation heaped on her by men.

It is this element of Hello Kitty Must Die that makes it a revenge fantasy. Sean, with whom Fiona has always been “half in love with” and half in fear with,” is exacting his own revenge on bullies like his father and “sluts” like his mother – “doing God’s work,” as Fiona puts it. There are many figures in Fiona’s life she would like to exact revenge on, and some seem to get theirs, while others don’t. Fiona is understandably enraged by the historical privileges afforded men, especially white men, and she spends much of the book skewering people like her parents for their old country superstitions, her anorexic, bleached-skin cousin, for telling Fiona she was too fat and too dark, her bosses, for demoralizing and harassing their associates and secretaries, and anyone else who is either a direct or indirect source of Fiona’s imprisonment in the dimensionless Hello Kitty stereotype. This aspect of the book is fueled by a refreshingly dark, twisted, and amoral sense of humor.

But Fiona is still her parents’ daughter. As much as she tells her parents she won’t marry any of the men they find for her, she continues to go out with every single one. If some of the people around Fiona seem to die early and unexpectedly, no one seems to notice anything amiss. Because Fiona is a “good girl” – she works 80 to 90 hour weeks at her firm and does what her parents say with only nominal resistance. She lets the reader know that the word for “yes” in Cantonese, “hai,” also means “cunt,” when said in a higher tone, so we know that every time she said “hai” to her father, she is aware of her abdication and her traditional place in the family as a daughter, not a son (or even the mother of sons).

This aspect of the book complicated the humor and stereotype-skewering for me, undermining the success of the dark satire. For example, when Fiona uses the word “hai” to her father, it felt like the affirmation of a Hello Kitty, rather than an independent, feminist woman who was trying to throw off the chains of her patriarchal Chinese-American upbringing. This image of Fiona as lacking agency – or, perhaps more accurately, abdicating agency – is reinforced by her decision to live at home so she could buy more designer shoes on her six figure salary. She feels so harassed by her parents’ old country superstitions and attitudes, and yet she willfully puts herself in a position of dutifully obeying her father’s truly hideous suitor choices and tolerating her mother’s passive acquiescence to a way of life that offends Fiona.

From this perspective, it becomes more difficult to completely sympathize with Fiona, or to simply vicariously enjoy her revenge fantasy. Comparing Fiona to her parents does not result in Fiona’s characterization as a stereotype-busting voice; to the contrary, Fiona becomes stereotyped in ways that similarly reinforces the very stereotypes her narrative superficially, at least, seems to critique. And because the satire exists at a relatively shallow level, I did not find enough self-awareness or self-consciousness in the narrative voice to view Fiona’s character, and her self-defeating critique, as meta. The irony of having a white male character be Fiona’s inspiration is not made less problematic by the fact that he is a serial killer abetted by Fiona’s own cultural victimization.

I have to admit that I had high expectations for Hello Kitty Must Die. Let’s face it; the title alone is killer. And the biting voice of the narrator is wonderfully entertaining for at least half the novel. The problems really become apparent as the narrative moves toward its ultimate completion, and various questions around where the story is taking Fiona and where it will leave her begin to weigh down the dark satire. It would be one thing if the shallowness of the narrative ensured an uncomplicated reading experience; although maintaining the reader’s engagement at that level requires substantial narrative control. The problem is that the issues on which the novel’s satire is built – gender, culture, family, various forms of morality – are already problematic enough to make impossible a purely superficial reading. Or, more accurately, they make impossible a purely superficial reading that shows the book in its best light.

There were also quite a few noticeable errors in the book, from Karl Malden spelled with a “C” to “cholericly” for either “colicky” or “choleric” (not sure which was intended) to simple typos I don’t think should be so prevalent in a professionally published book.

According to the bio at the back of the book (which highlights several superficial parallels between her life and Fiona’s), Hello Kitty Must Die is Choi’s first novel, and for me the narrative demonstrated a lack of maturity that made sense when I understood the book to be a debut work. Still, I have to evaluate it on its own terms, and on that basis, the book was ultimately a C read for me.

~ Janet

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isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

21 Comments

  1. Sharon
    Aug 08, 2011 @ 12:29:40

    That is definitely a super title!

  2. Darlynne
    Aug 08, 2011 @ 15:59:11

    A great review, Janet. I had wondered about this book, but am trying to work through the TBR pile. I may pick it up later and am glad it is something I don’t have to rush out and get right now.

  3. katieM
    Aug 08, 2011 @ 17:26:45

    I love the title and I’m willing to give it a chance based on that alone.

  4. DS
    Aug 08, 2011 @ 19:03:17

    I bought it. It sounds like something I might enjoy.

  5. Lorraine from CA
    Aug 08, 2011 @ 22:18:50

    Thanks for the review. I downloaded it today after reading a sample. I think I’m going to like it.

  6. Joanna K.
    Aug 08, 2011 @ 23:07:08

    This is something different. I can’t say if I’m intrigue by the book or by the title itself.

    “She has pictures of serial killers as her computer screen saver; her best friend is a serial killer who uses her to pick out his victims; “

    I’m not sure if anyone else’s eyes bugged out after reading that, but mine did. Wow…and the hatred of Hello Kitty, I think I’ll be picking up this book just because it’s not something I’d read on a normal basis.

  7. SonomaLass
    Aug 09, 2011 @ 02:05:37

    Does a C review sell books? Well since it’s free, I’m not sure it counts as a sale, but reading this review intrigued me enough that I downloaded the book.

  8. Amy
    Aug 09, 2011 @ 10:15:18

    Sounds like a frustrating read.

  9. jmc
    Aug 09, 2011 @ 10:47:32

    I enjoyed HKMD much more than you, Robin, but that may be because I didn’t have high expectations (?). I liked Fiona’s passive-aggressive approach to mayhem and her gradual expansion with Sean’s encouragement. I loved that under the normal romance or chick lit rules, Sean would be her knight on a white charger but in this case he was the agent for amplifying her discontent and channeling it into more action.

    Disclaimer: in real life, I do *not* get Hello Kitty at all, so I probably missed a boatload of subtext there.

  10. Robin/Janet
    Aug 09, 2011 @ 12:02:48

    If you’re responding to my tweet, I was careful not to assert that C reviews sell books, but merely that they do not necessarily discourage buying (I really should have said reading, though, since I don’t know how long the Kindle version remained free — it’s not now — and there are many ways to legally acquire a book). The main point I wanted to make is that a C review is not the kiss of death, as some seem to believe it is. ;D

  11. Robin/Janet
    Aug 09, 2011 @ 12:08:55

    I, too, liked the way Sean was more a catalyst to mayhem than salvation for Fiona. It was just that agency was such a central issue for Fiona, I couldn’t help but feel that her character kept turning back on itself in ways that didn’t seem intentional within the narrative structure.

    And, quite honestly, it did seem kind of curious to me the way Choi’s bio seemed designed to echo Fiona’s.

  12. jmc
    Aug 09, 2011 @ 22:38:58

    I didn’t look at Choi’s bio and so missed the parallels.

    Re Fiona’s lack of agency, I hadn’t framed my reading that way (although rethinking it now, that seems like a large mistake on my part). My filter or framework was the passive-aggressive behavior, which demonstrated her escalating, under-the-surface rebellions and also her pathology (maybe not the right word). I saw the confinement of living at home, the job she didn’t care for, the dating parent-approved men, etc., as lane markers of sorts that kept her from being or becoming the uncontrolled serial killer that Sean was, controls that she needed and also hated. But I may have imagined that. :D

  13. Anon76
    Aug 10, 2011 @ 04:23:31

    Now see, based on this review, I may have to buy this book even though it seems a bit pricey.

    Except for the basic typos and sometimes misuse of or made up word, I totally get the whole “hai” thing, bowing to mom and dad’s wills even when it seems against character, etc. Even the serial killer friend. Which I find an odd an intriguing way to show rage against cultural norms one really can’t fight.

    I say this because I worked 7 days/60 plus hours a week for five years in my early twenties at a Chinese restaurant. Now don’t groan. The restaurant was owned by very old school Chinese. And most every cook came from Hong Kong (often after managing to leave mainland China) and spoke not a word of English. The others were raised and educated in America and guided the others.

    One wrong way of saying something as you placed orders had the kitchen in tears. Such as a “Hai” dish in a high pitch. If you looked at one cook to request your own lunch order, you wouldn’t get it at all. Disrespectful to pick one cook over another.

    But no matter whether born and raised here in the US or overseas, you married within your culture. Period, end of sentence. Some couples despised each other but they “did the right thing.” And I did not see any “Hello Kitty’s”. Once that marraige was made, behind closed doors, the women were forces to be reckoned with. A very complicated mix of outer serenity and submission, even in front of their children, versus the inner dragon.

  14. Robin/Janet
    Aug 10, 2011 @ 20:24:47

    Oooh, fascinating insight about the controls on Fiona’s behavior v. Sean’s. There’s kind of an interesting tension with Fiona, isn’t there? OTOH, when the controls are too tight, like with her boss, Jack, bad things happen. And when they’re too loose, like with Sean, bad things happen. I wonder what the happy medium is.

  15. Robin/Janet
    Aug 10, 2011 @ 20:40:43

    I know exactly what you’re talking about re. the power issues inside and outside the marriage/behind the scenes. And had Choi nuanced the relationships in the book with some of that, I might have bought the rebellion against undefeatable norms thing.

    But because the portrayals were so flat, and so negatively flat (I can’t think of one Chinese character, let alone Chinese woman), who was portrayed positively in the book), I didn’t feel that delicious subversion, revolutionary though it would never be for Fiona.

    There was an almost adolescent indignation characterizing the narrative that struck me as less about consciously portraying powerlessness (which would make the narrative successfully liberating for the reader in a way it would never be for the protags) and more about under-developed writing.

    Still, there were a lot of funny bits and an incredibly biting and dark sense of humor, which make me curious to see what Choi does next.

    Still, there was enough

  16. Robin/Janet
    Aug 10, 2011 @ 20:43:13

    Also wondering what you thought of the hymen surgery bit. At first it struck me as perversely funny and clever, but in retrospect it feels more like narrative manipulation to bring Sean back into the picture.

  17. jmc
    Aug 10, 2011 @ 22:31:11

    IRL, I have problems with hymen replacement, but I loved it in the book, because it was wrapped up in Fiona’s unknown/unrecognized rebellions and then was negated by her own biology. Another constraint that she hated while it existed but when removed (or, really, when its existence was negated) was suddenly desirable again. Not because she wanted to conform but because she felt like her destruction of that bit of tradition had been cheated by indifferent biology.

    But I stopped loving it when Sean entered as a renowned plastic surgeon, because it felt forced. I also wondered how likely it was that he would be so acclaimed at his age, thinking that after surgical residency there would be specialization in plastics. But maybe not? Once again, I let trivia distract me.

  18. Robin/Janet
    Aug 11, 2011 @ 00:15:07

    Yes, my response was very much along those lines. Also agree re. Sean’s accomplishment at his age. In fact, I couldn’t figure out if he’s even be able to have his own practice at that age, med school in Puerto Rico or not. But I don’t know the residency requirements for practice in the US, so all that remained in the realm of hmmmm for me, as opposed to NO WAY.

    And perhaps I’m defending this because I felt the same way, but I don’t see you as being distracted by trivia, I see it as a weakness in world building. For example, did you notice the reference to the “rules of California evidence” instead of the California rules of evidence (or even more properly, the California Evidence Code)? Like California has its own special evidence, not just its own specific rules.

  19. jmc
    Aug 11, 2011 @ 07:59:18

    I saw the rules of California evidence, and highlighted it as being either over-editing or just plain weirdness.

  20. wade2121
    Aug 11, 2011 @ 23:44:47

    The title is hilarious. I can’t wait to read this.

  21. Haley
    Jan 27, 2012 @ 10:52:57

    Nice article about the book. I might read this book now!!!!?:)

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