Desert Isle Keeper
Début novels can be a bit of a gamble, but I’m glad to report that Lily Chu’s The Stand-In is a risk worth taking.
Gracie Reed is the biracial daughter of a white Canadian man and a Chinese mother now struggling with dementia. First, her boss sexually harasses and then fires her. Next, a paparazzo mistakes her for Chinese megastar Wei Fangli, who is in Toronto to star in a play. It’s shock after shock when Fangli herself approaches Gracie with a proposition: impersonate the burned-out Fangli at PR events for a six-figure sum. Hesitant at first, Gracie decides to accept the offer, not just for the money (which she needs to pay for her mother’s dementia care), but for the experiences and the chance to feel significant for once. Unfortunately, Fangli’s best friend and co-star Sam Yao thinks this is a terrible idea. Also unfortunately, he’s the most attractive person Gracie has ever seen.
I most connected with Gracie in her realistic flaws. She has depression-related unproductivity and procrastination, and she freezes when confronted by her harassing boss. I liked that her masquerade as Fangli facilitates a personal journey. I genuinely felt the detail of Gracie having stopped wearing perfume because of her boss’s sexual harassment, and feeling the joy of being able to wear it again as Fangli (and that’s speaking as someone who is allergic to perfume!). Gracie has been shrunk down by forces outside herself, and acting as Fangli empowers her to be looked at in safety. I also really liked Fangli, and how her need for a stand-in is developed into its own personal mental health journey. Sam is a bit of a stock-in-trade hero in his temperament, angry at first and then gradually falling for Gracie. On the other hand, a man who is ethnically Chinese, Chinese by citizenship and panty-meltingly hot is representation I’ll need to see a LOT more of before I start calling it a cliché. He’s better developed than most actor protagonists, too – such a talented performer that Gracie can’t trust that his attraction to her is authentic.
The depiction of ‘life of the rich and famous” is strong and nuanced here, going beyond “oh, there are paparazzi’ to include things like gallery openings, a Chanel fashion show, and a film premiere. Fangli talks about how she doesn’t like to drink in case it makes her lose control, but how she always accepts and is photographed with alcohol because the product endorsement opportunities are too good to rule herself out of. (Can you tell I really liked Fangli?)
I do wish that the author had trusted herself a little more – that her writing is good enough, and her characters are strong enough, for her not to need to make use of some clichés of the genre. Gracie doesn’t need her moments of klutz, nor the ‘comical’ disasters which strike (like a fallen towel in front of Sam, or Spanx rolling down on her during a movie premiere). A foreign-language conversation that Gracie only hears parts of and jumps to a conclusion about? Not necessary! The Gracie the author has created – managing anxiety and depression, as well as what looks a lot like ADHD – has plenty of internal reasons for her struggles. The book is at its best when those reasons, not well-trodden plot devices, drive the events. There is a plot ‘twist’ I saw coming a long way off, but it’s so strongly connected to the original premise that Gracie can pass for Fangli that I didn’t mind too much.
I also wish this story had gone to at least warm instead of just subtle in terms of the love scenes because the lower heat level feels like a mismatch for the intensity of Sam and Gracie’s attraction.
None of these issues, however, are unfixable. What I loved about Chu’s book was what is hardest to teach, and I look forward to reading more of her work, which I hope will be just as strong or even better!
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I'm a history geek and educator, and I've lived in five different countries in North America, Asia, and Europe. In addition to the usual subgenres, I'm partial to YA, Sci-fi/Fantasy, and graphic novels. I love to cook.