"Yolk," Reviewed by Elizabeth Nación
For an Asian American girl navigating her twenties, Yolk by Mary H. K. Choi is the best thing since sliced bread. Choi’s writing reeled me in from the very first line and gave me the perfect balance between tearing up and bursting out laughing. As an up-and-coming Korean American author and journalist, Choi became popular through her recent books, Emergency Contact (2018) and Permanent Record (2019), and published Yolk shortly after in 2021.
The story is told from the perspective of Jayne Baek, who has moved from Texas to New York City and is struggling to live up to the reputation of her older sister, June. Although the two live in the same city, they’ve both held a grudge against each other that is enough to keep them estranged. But when jobless June develops cancer, she has no choice but to pretend to be her little sister, Jayne, at the hospital. This leads the two to reconcile as one of them may, in fact, be dying.
The first thing that caught my attention was the cover of the book. I loved the illustration of the two sisters falling, one on the front and one on the back, and their hands being held together between the pages. The design reflects the nature of the book, because the whole time they attempt to hold each other up despite being at odds with themselves. June experiences internal conflict over what could potentially be the last few months of her life; Jayne experiences internal conflict over her broken relationship with her sister and the rest of her family, and how it affects who she is now. I love Choi’s style of humor and the way in which she is both sarcastic and funny, while also drawing on some very serious topics. It shows the natural flow of thoughts for a girl like Jayne, who copes using humor in order to face some really hard situations in her life.
Because the story is told solely through Jayne’s eyes, we see her issues with mental health, romance, childhood abandonment trauma, and more. Jayne is universally relatable as a main character because of how openly imperfect she is. I think this book would interest many audiences because it’s probably the first fiction book I’ve read with primarily Asian characters. It also doesn’t perpetuate any stereotypes nor is it focused on identity alone, but rather tells a story of a family that happens to be Asian. Relevant issues of mental health and insecurities such as impostor syndrome are tackled by Jayne’s character, as she is at an age where she questions herself the most. This normalizes uncomfortable conversations within a community that consciously avoids and fears them. The book represents the experience of first-gen immigrants to a T, while also being relatable to young audiences as a whole.
By the end of the novel, the once estranged sisters find themselves closer than ever, finally understanding and coming to peace with the trauma of their mother abandoning them when they were kids. They find out that she left for Korea in order to grieve for the baby that she miscarried, Ji-soo. The theme of understanding grief and how it applies at all stages of life is very beautiful. I found that the ending of the book encourages families, whether or not they are Asian American or immigrants, to reconcile and come to an understanding. The story teaches a lesson everyone needs to learn: it’s never too late to start over again with those that you love.
Mary H. K. Choi
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Elizabeth Nación is a junior studying English, with a concentration in Writing and Rhetoric, and minors in Peace and Justice and Communication. She hopes to apply her skills in the practice of law or education post-graduation. Elizabeth enjoys creative writing, both in poetry and music, in her free time, and edited poetry for Bridges over the fall.