Novelists are often admonished to “write what you know”; Christina Chiu instead decided to know what she wrote. The Asian-American writer now has a sideline as shoe designer, something she learned as an integral part of writing her most recent novel set in and around the fashion industry. The novel’s title, however, refers less to the profession than her protagonist’s journey to break free from her father’s abandonment when she was a teenager.
Everything seems to go wrong for Amy Wong the year she turns sixteen. Her father leaves the family in New York to join his mistress in Hong Kong. He’s found a younger wife, not much older than Amy’s twenty year-old sister, Georgie. Some years later when Amy graduates from design school, she is already a promising fashion designer with the potential to succeed in cut-throat New York.
Left unsupervised after her mother rushes back to Hong Kong to try to save her marriage, Amy immerses herself in fashion and men who are not good for her and so continues into adulthood. At a crossroads in her dating life around the time she’s graduating from school, she thinks about her father: he and his new wife have a coveted son.
Didn’t he love me anymore? I wondered. Had he ever loved me? I felt like the loneliest person in the world. In the mirror, an ordinary Chinese girl stares back at me. She may be my reflection but it’s as if the real me is stuck on the other side of the glass.
She meets the fictitious clothing designer Jeff Jones but instead of offering her a job, he proposes marriage. Jeff’s racial slurs against Amy belie his insistence he’s not a racist. She’s under no delusions, but he’s not really much different from some other men she’s encountered. They marry; a son quickly follows, although Amy is not completely certain on the paternity since she went back to an ex-boyfriend one time just before her wedding.
Her son Alex doesn’t stir many maternal instincts. Jeff initially stays home with Alex while Amy works as a fashion buyer. Just when she starts to finally succeed in her career, Jeff decides he has to go back to work full-time and it’s Amy’s turn to be a parent.
Motherhood is another prominent line through the book. Amy sees her mother as a lonely, rejected ex-wife stuck living with Georgie, now an emergency room doctor. When Amy’s marriage falls apart and when she can’t support herself, her mother refuses to let Amy move in with Georgie and her.
Dad stuck a knife into the very heart of Ma’s confidence. She never got over the divorce. Is it my fault that Ma feels like a total failure? Because it’s bad enough that Georgie remains unmarried, a spinster. Now, her other daughter is a serial divorcée.
Chiu’s family roots in Hong Kong informs the passages set there. It takes her father’s death and his Hong Kong funeral for everyone to make peace with their pasts and for Amy to finally find beauty in her life.
Divorce the second time around is liberating and Amy can return to what she loves most: fashion design and her family. Late in the story, Amy repurposes for her granddaughter the first pair of boots she bought just after her father left the family.