REVIEW: Girl Overboard by Justina Chen Headley
Dear Ms. Chen Headley,
It’s no secret that I’m bored with Gossip Girl-style young adult novels. Teen girls being nasty to one another and stabbing each other in the stab? Surely, there’s more to contemporary young adult novels than this. So when I received a copy of your book, I was thrilled. A novel that features a snowboarding heroine? That’s something new.
Syrah Cheng is the daughter of a billionaire who made his wealth in the cellular phone field. She lives in a mansion, gets anything she desires, and enjoys every luxury you can imagine. But wealth has a price: people want her not for herself but for what she can bring them courtesy of her family name.
This point was driven home when she learned the boy she loved wanted to use her to catapult himself to fame in the snowboarding world. The discovery led to a reckless decision that resulted in a severe knee injury and cemented her unfounded reputation as a spoiled rich girl who believes the rules don’t apply to her. Now Syrah has to figure out who she is. A snowboard girl ruined before her time? Another heir to a family dynasty she doesn’t want? An obedient daughter living up to her parents’ expectations? Or someone else entirely?
Syrah is a wonderful protagonist. I loved how she tried her best to balance being a good daughter trying to live up to the family name and her Chinese parents’ expectations with that of a teenager trying to leave her mark on the world. Before her accident, she dreamed of becoming a sponsored snowboarder but when that’s taken away from her, she’s lost all purpose and focus. Snowboarding was an outlet for her and now that it’s gone, she’s suffocating. I thought Syrah’s growth from a teenager rebelling against her parents to one who uses the lessons of her father’s entrepreneurial spirit to forge her own path was excellent. It shows that while some dreams die, there are other dreams to fulfill and Syrah’s ability to remain true to her love of snowboarding was inspiring.
I admit friends becoming more is a favorite storyline of mine, and I enjoyed following Syrah’s constantly shifting relationship with her best friend, Age. The awkwardness that surrounds crossing the line between friends and something more were portrayed wonderfully, especially with the added complication of Age’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Natalia. I found it interesting that here it wasn’t Syrah who was the other girl; it was actually Natalia who felt like the interloper and the one who accused Age of cheating on Syrah with her, even though Syrah and Age are “just friends”.
Whatever his relationship with Syrah, there’s no denying Age is an important person in her life. Unlike her other friends, he didn’t change when her family became wealthy. He calls her on her mistakes — when she first let her family’s wealth go to her head and later, when he accuses her of being ashamed of him. There’s something inherently sweet about Age’s presence in the book because his friendship is the one thing Syrah needs most.
Syrah’s relationships with her various family members are just as well-done. Her parents neglect her, focusing most of their attention upon business matters, which in turn drives Syrah’s desire to be a good daughter in the hopes of winning their love and approval. Syrah’s rocky relationships with her half-siblings, the children of her father’s first marriage, Grace and Wayne, were also realistic. Her older brother and sister resent her because they believe Syrah enjoys all the fruits of their father’s labor without having to experience the pain and sacrifice they endured. Syrah, on the other hand, dreams of having an affectionate big brother and sister, and does everything she can to make that dream come true, sometimes with disappointing results. How her relationships with them change, and don’t change, throughout the book was lovely.
But the highlight of Syrah’s familial relationships was that with her mother. Just as Syrah is a product of how her mother raised her, her mother is a product of how she was raised. Syrah’s treatment by her mother — from the exercise regiment to the strict diet — are all reflections of Betty’s upbringing and the damage she experienced at the hands of her adopted parents. The way Syrah bridges the gap between them was excellent.
My only criticism is that after all the buildup regarding what happened between her and Jared and the ensuing snowboard accident, the actual truth was a letdown. But other than that, I was charmed by Syrah’s tale and the way it blended social class differences, snowboarding, family, Chinese culture, and burgeoning love, and I will be eagerly seeking out your other books. A-
This book can be purchased in hardcover format.