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Book Review: ‘Fiona and Jane,’ by Jean Chen Ho

By Jean Chen Ho

Many an Angeleno will feel it deeply when a character in Jean Chen Ho’s “Fiona and Jane” lists her stoner ex’s go-to junk food orders: “King Taco carne asada fries, Shin ramen with ripped-up Kraft singles, Sourdough Jacks and jalapeño poppers picked up from the drive-through.” But even to those not from Los Angeles, Ho’s debut collection feels like a shared experience, carefully read back to you.

The stories toggle between the book’s namesakes: Fiona, beautiful and ambitious and constantly looking for a way out, and Jane, tall and grieving and staying put in California. The two adolescents, best friends since the second grade, walk hand in hand through the thrills and pains of growing up — first time drinking, first time in a motel room with an older guy who thinks you’re in college, the casual stereotypes of Asian Americans that get tossed around casually and cruelly. Jane distinguishes their friend Won from the spoiled sons of fathers “who owned a chain of liquor stores or gas stations or SAT cram schools. We knew Koreans like that, sure.”

[ This collection is one of our most anticipated books of January. See the full list. ]

While Ho, born in Taiwan and raised in California, circles sexuality, money and religion with grace, the most moving parts of the book are about the two women’s respective family roots. Jane’s father is a gay man who begins a new life in Taiwan while she and her Christian mother live in California, and he tells Jane about his sexuality when she visits Taiwan as a teenager. What follows is a string of events that feel to her like a turning point in her life’s trajectory. Fiona on the other hand spends her early years in Taiwan, not knowing her father is alive until right before she and her mother move to America. Her father, it turns out, never knew about her.

The two women grow apart in their 20s, as Ho provocatively examines culpability and personhood through defining moments in her characters’ disparate lives — quitting law school, stealing a lover’s Rolex, caring for a friend with cancer. When Jane spills her father’s secret, he “kept saying it was OK, over and over again, as if that might make it true.” When Fiona confesses that a lover has taken all of her savings, her mother offers to give her what little savings she has of her own. Again and again Ho reveals the protagonists’ actions to be not just inevitable, but forgivable.

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