I’ll bet she’s never even made a rash choice in her life…
There was something off the entire time I was reading Diana Ma’s Heiress Apparently, and I wasn’t entirely sure what it was until I sat down to really think about it. Of course, there are the little things at first: it’s very clear this is Ma’s first novel. The pacing is off, side character development is lacking, there were moments of stilted dialogue, and important commentary that came across as contrived But the thing that really held me back from falling for this book was the fact that, as great as Gemma is as a character, her mother’s is the more interesting story.
The Lukewarm Sequel
I hate to say it, but this is exactly what Heiress Apparently felt like to me. Gemma’s mom, Lei, had a thoroughly enticing backstory with fascinating historical context, engaging and terrifying stakes, and is clearly fraught a deluge of emotions. And Gemma’s is the sequel story that just isn’t as exciting. Gemma’s is the modern story with mild stakes that never really amount to anything, despite the small buildup we get for it. She’s kept in the dark about a big family secret, but in the end her story is really about her finding family and standing up to make a difference in an industry that still hasn’t fully moved past being racist and homophobic.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with Gemma’s story, really. It’s just…somewhat boring in comparison.
Part of the problem is that Gemma’s story tries to do everything at once and doesn’t really do anything exceptionally. Lukewarm is the term that regularly comes to mind when I think about this book. Nothing is bad, but nothing is great, either. You feel a mild connection to the characters and the story, but never anything more than that. Anything exciting has already happened in the past. What we’re reading through now are the less enthralling bits that come in an epilogue. We like it, but usually only because we’ve had the bulk of the novel to fall in love with the characters.
The theme I was most disappointed with was that of Chinese history, particularly in reference to the Cultural Revolution. Everything with this rather fascinating piece of the novel is presented secondhand. We only get this information through the knowledge and thoughts of Gemma or other characters around her. Never once do we really get to experience any of it with the characters. It all ends up being more of a summary. This was so upsetting. I can just imagine that if we’d been in Lei’s story instead…everything would have been so much better.
Then, of course, there are the commentaries on Hollywood, homophobia, racism, sexism, and the like. All of these are important things to comment on, for sure. But they were such minimal side plots to Gemma’s overall story that they never really felt fully fleshed out. This was, at it’s core, a story about Gemma finding her place. And that was entirely entrenched in her family. It had little to do with these side plots past her learning to stand up for her beliefs.
And I guess I’ll die on this hill:
I feel as though Heiress Apparently should have been two separate books. The first should have been Lei’s story, focusing on aspects of Chinese history mentioned above. And the second should have been Gemma’s, shifting focus to these other commentaries while still calling back to Lei’s tale.
Just imagine how much better that would have been! There was so much potential!
I mentioned before that it’s very clear this is Ma’s debut novel. Therefore there are certain pieces that definitely needed work. That said, I can forgive some of these because it’s her debut. But, I have to ask: what is the point of Ken? He should not have been part of this book at all, really. His entire purpose seemed to be to provide a foil to show how much better Eric was. And honestly? I got that. I didn’t need Ken to get that.
Ma’s pacing needed some work, as did her character development. There were both rushed and draggy sections of the novel. Fixing those would have made the story much better as a whole. My biggest complaint about the character development really exists with Alyssa. I guess I just never felt like her character was developed. And then to give her growth but never actually show it to the readers was a problem. I never got to know her enough for that growth to mean anything to me.
But, with this all said, there’s a lot of good within the pages of this book. In fact, I loved everything involved with Gemma’s parents and their story. I was so intrigued and eager to learn more about the Cultural Revolution. I was practically scouring the pages for the secrets. These are the moments where this book really shines.
Which, I guess, is why I was so sad that it wasn’t more of a focal point.
I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.