This post follows up my previous post Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends. I was delighted to read two commercial novels recently that allow ambitious women to succeed in their respective fields without either punishing them afterwards or making them give it all up for the sake of love/family. But I’m always looking out for more…
Although I hadn’t read anything by Nghi Vo before, Siren Queen was one of my most anticipated books of 2022. I adored the premise: a lesbian Chinese-American actress trying to make it in a version of Old Hollywood that runs on ancient magic. And Vo certainly makes this work. She embeds us into a world where the characters already instinctively understand how these things function and have no need to explain how the magic works when they bargain with inches of their hair or years of their life. I particularly admired how elegantly she makes the metaphorical real: starlets are literally silenced, erased or become hollowed-out shells of themselves. Luli Wei, our heroine, is shamelessly ambitious, and I loved her for it: she rejects the stereotypical roles that Chinese women usually played in movies of the time, although she ends up occupying a niche as another kind of folk devil.
Given all this, I’m struggling to understand why I just liked Siren Queen rather than absolutely loved it. Firstly, I think, the pacing is off: there’s a long digression in the middle involving one of Luli’s lovers and the Wild Hunt (which itself didn’t seem to belong in this particular magical world; but I hate fairy mythology so I’m biased). Then the Epilogue gives us a glimpse of what seems like the fascinating second half of Luli’s life and career, summarised in just a few pages. While I really enjoyed the way that Luli’s eventual wife, Jane, interjected comments on the story from the very start, this made me want more of her character, and we never really ‘meet’ her on screen. I can see why Vo felt that the climax of her story sat where it did, but I’d have preferred her to race through much of the first half of Luli’s life and focus on the second. We have a lot of books about young women who want to become stars but fewer on what happens after they’ve achieved it.
Ultimately, what I personally wanted from this book didn’t quite fit with the novel Vo wanted to write, which isn’t the book’s fault; and the worldbuilding was spectacular. I hope Vo writes another book set in this creepy space.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Carrie Soto Is Back sees the Ambitious Women trope and demolishes it in its first few pages. What a relief! Carrie Soto has already had an immensely successful tennis career in the 1970s and 1980s, setting the record for winning the most Grand Slams before her retirement from the game. Now it’s 1994, and Carrie is thirty-seven years old. As she faces a challenge to her record from upstart player Nicki Chan, Carrie makes a brave and perhaps ill-advised decision: she’s going to come out of retirement and defend her achievement.
The two books I kept thinking of while I was reading Carrie Soto Is Back was Lauren Weisberger’s The Singles Game, which is the only other women’s fiction book on tennis I’ve ever read, and Lionel Shriver’s merciless but insightful Double Fault, whose protagonist has to face the fact that she’ll never achieve what she wanted to in tennis. Weisberger’s book is a great (read: terrible) example of the Ambitious Women trope: its protagonist gives up tennis in her prime for paper-thin reasons that suggest that you just can’t be a nice girl and also be competitive. Shriver’s brilliant book interrogates what happens to us when we pin our entire identity on achievements that we can’t control. Reid walks the line between the two. Carrie is allowed to be satisfyingly, gloriously successful, but this book also questions what success means if you aren’t playing the kind of tennis you used to love. Rather than posing a neat opposition between love/family and ambition, Carrie Soto Is Back realistically shows how the two are intertwined. Carrie’s beloved father is also her coach, and while her love for him goes beyond tennis, tennis is also the ground on which they’ve built their relationship.
Reid is not concerned with making Carrie easily likeable, which I loved. Even more importantly, though, Carrie’s opponents, such as Nicki, are also complex women, not cartoon villains. Nicki is potentially even more ambitious than Carrie herself, and yet we see what drives her. This narrative choice makes the ending of the novel, which could have been a bit disappointing, work, because Reid is still celebrating female ambition. And while there’s a romance sub-plot in Carrie Soto Is Back, the tennis is rightly centre-stage. Some readers may find the close focus on tennis matches boring, but I was fascinated by the way Reid explores the psychology of the game (and I rarely actually watch tennis, so I’m by no means a tennis fan).
If I had any complaints about Carrie Soto Is Back, it’s that Reid’s writing is a bit more simplistic than in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones and the Six: the use of voice is much more straightforward, with the whole novel narrated by Carrie in first person. The 1994-5 setting is also disappointingly thin: I only remembered we weren’t in the present day when characters occasionally did things like use a landline rather than a mobile phone. However, this is so much better than Malibu Rising, and represents a return to form for Reid as much as for Carrie.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 30th August.