Jean Chen Ho’s debut collection, Fiona and Jane, portrays two Taiwanese American women who learn to accept themselves and each other even as they also discover the sense of belonging that comes with being seen. The 10 linked stories here are set in Los Angeles and New York, where the two share the formative milestones of girlhood before drifting apart and then back together again.
Ho introduces 18-year-old Jane first, in a moment of queer awakening. “We sat on the piano bench like that, just exploring each other with our lips,” the character enthuses. “Was that allowed? I didn’t care. I was kissing Ping, and she was kissing me back.” The thrill, however, is complicated when Jane’s father, who has left the family, reveals the reason: a similar awakening of his own. “My daughter. My dear daughter,” he laments. “I didn’t know this would happen.… I care for him. Very much.… And he cares for me.”
In Fiona and Jane, lovers and absent fathers abound; this is a book about coming-of-age, after all. At the same time, such figures never occupy the center of the narrative. If Ho’s secondary characters—the con artist who drains Fiona’s bank account, the lover Jane nicknames Ed because of his erectile dysfunction—do leave marks, the two women remain at the heart of things, their drunken nights together punctuated with laughter and green bottles of soju.
This review also appeared in the Monday Book Review Newsletter, sent to your inbox every week.
The collection shifts between them in a sequence of fragmented timelines, capturing the tender heart of their relationship. “If not for Jane,” Ho writes of Fiona’s early acclimatization to Los Angeles, “her loneliness might have been unbearable. Her parents were from Taiwan, too, but Jane was born here, in California. She spoke crooked Mandarin, learned from weekend Chinese school. Jane’s tonal accents were often mixed up and off-key, a funny song that made Fiona giggle.”
By choosing to move forward and back in time, Ho creates a coming-of-age experience that feels searingly true to life. The stories are each distinct, finding purchase in individual moments. Yet they also work together, building an emotional arc that allows Ho to address a much deeper question: How do you return to the people who love you when you know you will disappoint them?
The story “Korean Boys I’ve Loved” catalogs the essential encounters many young women accumulate as they assimilate their desires. “If you really want to know the truth,” Jane confides, “Won Kim was the only Korean boy I’d ever really loved, just don’t tell him I said so. Back in high school, we were both closeted as hell, but maybe some part inside each of us sensed it in the other and that was why we clung together.… He came out first, then me, a few years later.”
It’s a dynamic Ho complicates marvelously in the following story, “Doppelgängers,” which deals with the racial microaggressions inextricably woven into the women’s dating experiences. There, a man asks Fiona where she’s from. “LA,” she answers, to which he counters, “But where are you from, from? Originally, I mean.” When she finally says that she is Taiwanese, he tells her about his favorite Thai restaurant. “I love their pad see ew and tom yum soup,” he says. “I can eat it all at level-five spicy.”
Here we get Ho’s keen social eye and dry wit. “Cool,” Fiona says. “Good for you.”
Perhaps Ho’s greatest accomplishment (among the many joyous subversions of Fiona and Jane) is her rejection of stereotype. In a recent essay in Harper’s Bazaar, she argues for “Asian American mediocrity,” citing the reality show Bling Empire as a rare display of ordinariness.
“Because there are fewer stories about Asian-Americans in mainstream media than the vast array of white stories,” she writes there, “the works that do emerge inevitably endure harsher pressures of judgment from the communities they seek to represent.” The problem, Ho continues, is that this doesn’t allow space for “the messy stuff of being human, a privilege the white majority has always enjoyed playing out on screen without fear of casting embarrassment onto the entire race.”
In Fiona and Jane, Ho corrects for that. Jane opts not to attend college and manages apartment complexes for a living. Fiona graduates from UC Berkeley but drops out of law school. The friends’ major breakthroughs revolve around secrets and vulnerabilities.
“I was trying to protect you—” Jane tells Fiona at one point.
“Protect me?” Fiona responds. “I don’t need you to protect me, Jane. I need you to tell me the truth.”
Throughout Fiona and Jane, Ho gives her characters the grace to fail and the space to start again. Freedom from shame is the gift they offer each other. As Jane observes, “it takes practice to look like a real person.”
Words to live by, in a friendship that feels like home.•