I was drawn to Lucy and Linh, by Alice Pung, because a fish-out-of-water story at a fancy-pants private school is exactly what I want to read, thank you. I got the book from Netgalley (for an honest review; thank you, Netgalley!) and I got started, and it is definitely about a fish out of water at a fancy-pants private school--but the pants might be too fancy, and instead of water, the fish is kind of in a murky cesspool of malevolence.
Lucy's family came to Australia from Vietnam when she was a small child; they're ethnically Chinese. She lives on a poor side of town and goes to the local Catholic school, where many immigrants send their children to get a better education than in public school. Her father works at a carpet factory and her mother does piecework, sewing clothing at home while taking care of her baby brother.
Then Lucy applies for the first ever scholarship position at the incredibly posh Laurinda Academy, and, to her own shock, gets in. Suddenly she's going to a school where everyone else is rich, and white, and very, very snobby. At the point where I am (not quite halfway through the book), most of the story is about the politics and social life of this school.
Which is awful. Every single person there is horrible. From the very first moment, when we learn that the very expensive uniform must be purchased from a certain very expensive store and the headmistress doesn't seem to notice that this might be a hardship, to the firm label of Charity Case that she seems to have stuck on Lucy's head, the whole school seems toxic. There is a popular crowd who walks the halls in slow motion with a wind machine blowing their hair back--they are called The Cabinet and they rule the school but are evil, evil, evil, playing random pranks designed to crush people's spirits, including one on a teacher that results in a nervous breakdown.
These people are so evil I don't believe them. They do not seem to have any interiority; unlike, say, Before I Fall, the mean girls don't seem to have any personalities or desires or emotions that drive them. They just enjoy ruining lives. They're sociopaths, basically. And a lot of the attention of the school--and of the book--is devoted to them.
I wanted more about Lucy. So far she's mostly an observer; she's tried to talk to one or two other students about things, but they don't get it or won't talk about it. I'm frustrated for her, because she seems like the only sane person in the crazytown of this school, but she's got a Nick Caraway vibe going on, in that she doesn't really seem to have much of a role in the story yet.
The format of the book is interesting, too--it's addressed to Linh, who seems to be a friend of Lucy's from her old school, someone she left behind. Linh is in all of her memories from her old school, and sometimes backs Lucy up when she's, say, on the phone with someone from school, but her actual role isn't clear at all. I'm pretty sure at this point that the epistolary nature of the novel is a bit of a gimmick; it doesn't seem to be adding anything to the story, and I think it's working more as a metaphor.
I really wanted to like the book better. I did listen to the Reading the End podcast episode about it (warning, there are some spoilers there--but it's worth listening to for the sharp observations about how evil cliques work in real life vs. stories), and they felt the same way I did: there's some good potential here, but the story focuses way too much of the mean girls at school. I do love Lucy's family--her lovable baby brother, her dad who takes time of work whenever he needs to for her, her mom who sews all day and loves her children fiercely. Her family is great, and if the book is trying to paint them as awkward in the fancy world Lucy now inhabits, it's failing, because her parents seem pretty rational and the adults at this school are all on some kind of crack.
So I think this book is not for me. I'm pretty sure I really like what it's aspiring to, but it's strayed a little too much into caricature to work, in my opinion. I'm only partway through it, so maybe that opinion will change, but I also might not finish it at this point.
Thank you again to Netgalley for the review copy. I'm never sure about writing about a review book that I'm not sure I'll finish, but I really wanted to talk about this one, because the ingredients of the book aren't adding up to everything it could be.