An audio/podcast version of this post can be found here.
Hi friends! I just realized, in the process of reading From Little Tokyo, With Love that Little Tokyo is a very beautiful place in L.A. that I had no idea existed before now? I mean, look at this magical place:
Anyways, onto the book! And a huge thank you to the lovely folks over at Penguin Teen for the e-ARC in exchange for an honest review!
Celebrated author Sarah Kuhn reinvents the modern fairy tale in this intensely personal yet hilarious novel of a girl whose search for a storybook ending takes her to unexpected places in both her beloved LA neighborhood and her own guarded heart.
If Rika’s life seems like the beginning of a familiar fairy tale–being an orphan with two bossy cousins and working away in her aunts’ business–she would be the first to reject that foolish notion. After all, she loves her family (even if her cousins were named after Disney characters), and with her biracial background, amazing judo skills and red-hot temper, she doesn’t quite fit the princess mold.
All that changes the instant she locks eyes with Grace Kimura, America’s reigning rom-com sweetheart, during the Nikkei Week Festival. From there, Rika embarks on a madcap adventure of hope and happiness–searching for clues about her long-lost mother, exploring Little Tokyo’s hidden treasures with a cute actor, and maybe…finally finding a sense of belonging.
But fairy tales are fiction and the real world isn’t so kind. Rika knows she’s setting herself up for disappointment, because happy endings don’t happen to girls like her. Should she walk away before she gets in even deeper, or let herself be swept away?
I’ve said it once (at least ten times) and I’ll say it again: contemporaries and I aren’t the best of friends. But the synopsis had the word fairytale in it, which meant I went weak. Again. But I’m happy I read this, because it was very much a lovely modern fairytale contemporary story*!
*adjectives are my strong suit. for better or for worse.
Rika is biracial: half Japanese, half white/ She doesn’t quite fit into the Japanese community of Little Tokyo, yet she also doesn’t fit in with white girls. She’s hot-tempered, and loves dark Japanese folktales far more than the fuzzy, sappy Disney movies her cousins are named after. Watching her slowly come to terms with the vulnerabilities she tries so hard to hide while also not losing her red-hot spark was a great experience. Her character was written in such a believable way too! I never felt that she was angry as a “unique personality trait” or that her character arc was forced in any way.
Henry is biracial as well, half Filipino, half Chinese. I absolutely adored the way he and Rika connected over their shared experiences of not being totally one thing, not fitting in, and yet coming to terms with their own identity as an individual with a mixed background. I totally resonated with this aspect of the book, in case you couldn’t tell. Also, Henry is just adorable! In the process of letting Rika drag him all over Little Tokyo in search of her mother, he learns to deal with his own identity crisis and struggles.
Which brings me to my next point: community is such a powerful thing, and in the COVID pandemic it’s been so hard living without it, or at least not on the same level it was before. But truly, this book portrayed the Asian community (specifically the Little Tokyo Japanese community) as being both flawed and inextricably tied together in such a beautiful way. The concepts of strong friendships, blood family and adopted family, and romance without any caveats were honestly the starring roles in this book. That was the heart of this fairytale: the power of relationships and how important they are to an individual.
As much as I enjoyed certain pieces of this book, others just fell flat for me. Some might be bothered by the sheer amount of rom-com coincidences but I actually loved them! They felt naturally unnatural if that makes sense. However, with that being said, I did find myself feeling a little bit impatient with the plot. It often felt like we had tread through certain conversations before: like okay Rika, we get that you have a temper!! We don’t need you to think about it constantly or tell Henry about it every other minute! It also felt that the actual events lagged just a bit. I wasn’t as invested in the details of what was happening the way I wanted to be, unfortunately.
I also think that this book could have been just a bit shorter. There were some great moments for Rika, some great moments for Henry, and some fantastic moments that really captured the spirit of the modern fairytale. The addition of Rika’s two aunts and her cousins Belle and Rory doing their best to support her but at times not understanding her, was handled really well. However, sometimes the dialogue felt forced, stilted, too much “rom-com” for what it was worth. It’s the same with the plot: in movie form, the amount of unnecessary scenes wouldn’t have been bad! But when I’m reading, I’m a bit more impatient. Which…might just be a me problem come to think of it.
So that’s it! I know that this might not be the most descriptive of reviews, but I honestly believe that the strength of this story lies in its characters and messages. Talk to me! Have you been to Little Tokyo??? You can add this to Goodreads here and order your own copy here! Also, check out this interview/article on it from Yahoo Lifestyle!