Book Review: American Panda by Gloria Chao

At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth–that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?


5 star

I received an advance copy of this book from Simon & Schuster Canada in exchange for an honest review.

If I’m being totally honest, I requested this book when Simon & Schuster’s newsletter came around because I had heard a lot about, not because I was particularly interested in it. Contemporary is not generally my thing, and while the synopsis sounded cute, I wasn’t sure it was really my thing.

But holy macaroni, I’m so glad that I requested it, because it was such a good book. There are so many fantastic things happening throughout the book, and it’s amazing to finally read a book where the protagonist is in university rather than high school, even if that protagonist had skipped a year to get there ahead of time. It’s a book that YA literature has definitely needed, as far as my opinion is concerned.

The Good Points of American Panda:

I can’t talk about how the portrayal of Mei’s culture was done, because I honestly didn’t know much about it until reading this book. But as someone who knew little about the culture, it was presented in such a way that it made perfect sense, was so interesting, and gave just enough that it made me have to go onto Wikipedia and find out even more.

I adored Mei. She’s so well developed that by the end of the book, she feels like your best friend. She’s got her good qualities and bad qualities, but they all balance out in the end, and you find yourself rooting for her all the way to the final page.

I loved the portrayal of university in this book. First, because it’s not something that you see a lot of in YA to begin with, and second, because it felt very real, at least compared to my own first year of university. I would have loved having this book when I was in my first year.

This book tackles so many things, from traditions of Mei’s culture, family issues, falling in love, university, health, careers, individualism, collectivism, and everything in between. Which should have felt like a lot in a 300-page book. But it somehow worked. I honestly don’t know how Chao did it, but she did it wonderfully.

The Downsides of American Panda:

Because there was so much packed into this book, I felt as though I could have connected more if I’d spent some more time with each issue. It’s a great book, but even the hardest moments aren’t really the punch of the heart that they could be.

On that same note, the whole book did feel a little rushed. There were quite a few moments where I had to stop and remember what had happened, because we’d been through 8000 other things since the last time we’d seen that particular character/situation/etc.

Some of the moments in this book felt too convenient. For example, Mei meets a doctor early on that helps her realize her personal opinions on being a doctor. Which seemed a little too easy for my tastes. There are a couple of other situations like this throughout the book as well, and I kind of wanted it to not feel so set up.

All in all, I enjoyed this book so much and am so excited for it to be out in the world. It’s fantastic to glimpse into a different culture than my own in such an accessable and enjoyable way, and it’s amazing to see a book set in university in the YA genre. If you like realistic protagonists, glimpsing into different cultures, and books that have great family dynamics, you should definitely check out American Panda!

Find American Panda on Book Depository

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