Book Review: “Parachutes” by Kelly Yang

Where to even start, that’s the question here. I first discovered Parachutes by attending BookConline and watching the Raise Your Voice panel feature multiple talented authors. I have since added all of their books to my TBR pile. Kelly Yang’s book, however, was already available for purchase, so I bought it for kindle immediately. I knew what type of book I was signing on for; she’d spoken about it during the panel, which had only made me that much more eager to read its contents.

Parachutes is a Young Adult novel revolving around two girls in high school; Claire and Dani. Claire Wang is from Shanghai. After an unfortunate turn of events with an essay, her parents decide her education would be better served in America, at a school in California. Dani De La Cruz is a scholarship student and Claire’s host sister. The two come from different backgrounds and social economic standings in society which is displayed through the many chapters in which the perspectives we read shuffle between them. There are a multitude of topics that Yang covers in her book from the racial treatment of Chinese students, to the immoral hold money has over people’s stances over certain topics. Before I go any further into detail, this book covers rape and sexual harassment which may be triggering topics to others. If this is the case, you may not want to read this review.

Alright, with all the formalities out of the way, let’s get into it. I loved this book. From each unique character to every point in the plot, it was all beautifully crafted. The first topic I want to cover in this review is the unique take on perspective Yang uses throughout the book. From the start, we have more than one main character. We have both Dani and Claire, which is an aspect that made this entire story unique. Yang could have focused on one person, but she chose both girls, which served an even larger purpose in the story than one might think.

Note: Examples from the text for each topic I talk on will be at the bottom of the post. They will include spoilers.

I’m sure everyone can agree that we go through life seeing grass as greener on the other side of the fence. There are people we meet or see, and we envy them because it looks as if they’ve got it made easy, whether they have wealth, a good-looking family, an amazing partner, whatever it may be, we see someone and we’re jealous. We think, “I wish I could be like them.” Parachutes takes this thought process and puts it into every chapter. Dani sees Claire as a spoiled rich girl who’s had no trouble in life and has everything handed to her, and while she’s correct to a point, she misses the fact that Claire lost quite a bit on her end of things because of her rich, lavish life. She doesn’t really have a dad in the proper sense of the word. Her freedom is nonexistent until she’s sent to America, and even then other’s view of her and her race still dictate her life. On the other hand, Claire sees Dani as this intelligent, free spirit who isn’t held down by the duties that come from a family like the one she’d grown up in. In reality, Dani works her ass off, seeing her freedom as nothing more than a dangerous free fall that will end badly if she so much as messes anything up.

What makes this character dynamic work so well with the book is Yang’s use of Dramatic Irony. We follow along from chapter to chapter switching between these two girls, all the while watching as the tensions between them rises over basic misunderstandings based on the actions of Dani and Claire. We urge them, plead with them even, to take a second and see that it’s not what they think it is. Yang uses this to lure the readers deeper into her book. We want to know what will happen between them because we know what they’re thinking, but the other has no idea. We get frustrated with Dani and Claire, because that simple misunderstanding could so easily be cleared up, and we’re repeatedly strung alone because we want them to clear it up. I don’t know about those who’ve read it, but I can’t tell you how many times I said, “No, Dani/Claire, come on. It’s not what you think.” Often, we see this in other stories where our MC will see or do something that will lead to a misunderstanding with another person, but we rarely get to see the ramifications from the other side, (i.e. Dani’s view after something with Claire happens or vice versa).

For all the writers out there, these are the characters you want in your story. Even if you aren’t writing from multiple perspectives like Yang, imagine how your other characters would react/respond to your main character. This gives them more depth, and it allows the reader to develop a better connection with the characters whether it be because of a sympathy for the other party being treated unfairly, or frustration for neither character just speaking their mind. As readers, we want the clear, happily ever after, but Yang creates reality. Misunderstandings happen. Arguments happen. Unfair treatments happen, and that’s what makes her book so hard to put down.

Yang’s use of character dynamic and relationships in her text aren’t the only thing in Parachutes that has the reader wanting more from every chapter in the book. If it were just that, then the book wouldn’t be at the level it is. She uses other aspects of her writing that add to her characters, fleshing them out all the more while adding another layer to the story line. This would be the discrimination of race throughout the text. On one hand, we have Claire coming from Shanghai to America. There are a number of times where she’s looked down on whether it be in the intellectual aspect or the cultural aspect. She came to America because of her parents, but tried to make the best out of it, thinking she’d have more freedom than she did while under the watchful and strict eye of her parents. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Society insulted her culturally, by saying all Asians are the same. The school humiliated her—best put by Dani when she argued that Mrs. Wallace’s letter is, “a form of cultural imperialism.” Even her own race, born in America and designated ABC’s—American Born Chinese—put her in a different, lower standing just because of a jealousy and fear they felt when they saw her. Of course, when I use “her” I’m implying the entire Chinese student community within the novel as it’s not just Claire being unfairly treated in the text. Claire may not be under the same restraints as when she was in Shanghai, but she’s still bound by them laid out by these people because no matter what her thoughts, actions, or words are, these people—the society and school—already have pre-made misconceptions about who she is based on a general analysis and ignorant opinions. It’s these topics that get the reader thinking about these things happening outside of the novel. This discrimination is a reality that happens every day to people.

On the other hand, we have Dani, who’s from the other side of the spectrum. She comes from a low socioeconomic standing, was born in America, and is much more outspoken and ready to stand up for herself. Despite all this, she and Claire are still in the same boat. Because she’s a scholarship student, her classmates look down on her for not being rich. Her debate coach tries to make her feel worthless, as if she could achieve nothing without the help of someone in a higher standing. Just as people hold Claire prisoner by misconceptions, Dani is too, which is something readers get to experience thanks to the shifting perspectives in each chapter. Through this, we get to step into these characters shoes and we can understand a little more about where they come from, why they say what they do or act the way they do. Of course, we may never understand the full weight of what others may go through, but Yang has given us a chance to start understanding and sympathizing with some harsh realities and beliefs of those around us. I’m always saying literature goes beyond the words on the page, and this is a true example of that. Parachutes tells, and confronts, so much more than what we read, which leads me to the next part of the novel I found genius.

Parachutes is a novel that deals with many important topics beyond what we should confront within society. We notice one topic in the blurb —But Dani’s game plan veers unexpectedly off course when her debate coach starts working with her privately” — and again in the content warning before the book starts where we’re told there are scenes depicting both sexual harassment and rape. For me, while I’ve never experienced either, the warning had more impact on my reading. I only noticed this when I was about halfway through the book, and maybe other readers had the same experience.

I was constantly paranoid. Every male character that showed up in the book and interacted with Dani and Claire made me worried for the girls. I questioned every one of them, and while I already knew based on the description what would happen with the teacher, it got me wondering: Would I be this way had the warning never been there? Each one of these guys that showed up in the text did nothing to warrant my suspicion or questioning. Personality wise, some of them sucked, like Teddy, Claire’s boyfriend in the beginning of the novel. We all know the character he probably is based on his personality, but would we have seen any of them as potential criminals had that warning never been there? I don’t think so, and that’s what put me on edge because here I am sitting on the edge of my seat every time one of these people come up to Claire or Dani. I was invested in these characters and I wanted nothing bad to happen, and when it did, it was heartbreaking.

Yang uses all of this character development and story to bring her characters to life. We fall in love with them and, as with any good character, we want the best for them. We want that happy ending where all is good and right with the world when, in the cruelness of reality, things aren’t so clean cut and neat. She captures that reality in her writing which is what makes it so great, and what makes the book a must read.

I absolutely loved Parachutes and I recommend it to all those looking for an excellent read that highlights aspects of society that we can, and should, be working to change. If you’re interested in reading Parachutes you can find it on amazon. If you’d like to know more and Kelly Yang and some of her other works, head on over to her author page. This is the end of my In-Depth review on what I found to make the book stand out from the norm. Down below you’ll find some spoilers that highlight contents I’ve talk about within the review. Until next time.

All the best.

SPOILERS

A great example of the character dynamic and usage of Dramatic Irony in the text is when Claire’s father comes to visit. We’re all excited for Claire because her dad didn’t cancel. He’s actually here, in the flesh, ready to celebrate the fact that Claire tested into a top level English class. She get’s all dressed up, her dad picks her up, and they go to a fancy restaurant. We follow her to this lavish dinner and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wanted to smack her dad upside the head when he completely overreacted when she confronted him about him not caring what’s happening in her life. He left her there with 2 grand, as if money would solve him being a terrible father. Claire’s chapter ends there and picks up with Dani right after Claire and her father had left. It was this very part that made me aware of this smart style of writing because Dani’s watching them leave thinking how nice it must be to have a father fly all the way from China just to celebrate something with his daughter, but she hasn’t a clue what it’s like for Claire.

Dani’s debate teammates often treat her unfairly. They look down on her as a kid who’s riding the coattails of their parent’s cash. None of them ever see, or care to even acknowledge, all the hard work and effort she puts in just to achieve the scholarship she has.

For Claire, the judgement’s come in waves. From society, we see this portrayed by an Uber driver when he says:

“Shanghai, isn’t that where Jackie Chan’s from?” the guy asks, looking at me in the rearview mirror.
“I’m pretty sure he’s from Hong Kong,” I reply.
The driver shrugs. “Shanghai, Hong Kong, it’s all the same.”

We see it again in a later paragraph by the same driver when he uses Japanese. I understand that misunderstandings can happen. Some people don’t know certain things about other cultures, but it comes to a matter of wanting to learn over just not caring. In this instance, the driver, like some people in society, doesn’t care enough to clear up his misconceptions that all Asian cultures are the same which is not true.

At school, it’s in the form of a teacher claiming that English should be spoken 100 percent of the time. Any other language used, in this case Mandarin, would be unfair and bad manners to the other—American—students who don’t speak the language. It also comes in the form of ABC’s which are the American Born Chinese who outcast the parachutes as if they don’t share the same culture just because they were born in different countries. It’s like a play of superiority. The fact that they’re not from America instantly downgrades them, which isn’t—and shouldn’t ever—be the case.

Side Note: I loved the part where Dani stands up with Claire in Mrs. Mandalay’s office after the email Mrs. Wallace sends out. The reader gets a sense of Dani’s character even more thanks to the expert dialogue written in it.

There’s also the sideline topic of LGBTQ+ in the text in which Ming, Dani’s friend and a scholarship student from China, is dating Florence, a parachute also from China but from a high social standing. The both of them hide who they really are in fear of backlash from their families and society, ultimately conforming to a mold that people have made and dictated as “right” or “proper”, which also isn’t the case. The only “right” and “proper”, which is something we see both these characters come to understand, is for them to be who they are, not who society says they should be.

Who all was constantly changing suspects as they read when it came to figuring out who would be the bad guy? As soon as Jay came into the text, I was very suspicious of him, but then he became all sweet and I shifted my sights on Zach, because he just seemed too nice and too considerate, and as soon as I started saying that I realized, “what have any of these guys done to deserve my speculation and judgement?” because they really had done nothing. When Jay first appears, he hardly even speaks with Claire until later on in the text, and Zach only appears occasionally, too.

Once Jay began acting sweet, and we see the things he goes through with his father, my suspicions of him died down. Even more so when we see him waiting for Claire. Then we see this slow decline in their relationship, and before we know it, it happens, but until this point, it was a constant battle of paranoia over who it would happen to—Dani or Claire—and who would do it; Mr. Connelly, Zach, or Jay. Of course, it came to my attention that maybe it would be someone who wasn’t related to the main story line at all. For a while I was seriously worried about Ming and her terrible host family situation with Underwear Kevin. Then, I was worried about Jess because she didn’t seem like someone who makes the best decisions out there. Yang does an amazing job of putting you into this mindset where you have this partial fear and incessant paranoia where you question everyone, and everything whether they deserve it or not, and that’s what a masterful way of crafting a story looks like.

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