Review of LUCY AND LINH by ALICE PUNG
(based on a review copy)
This book took a very long time to pull me in, but I became a devoted fan by the end. On it’s surface, LUCY AND LINH is an almost cliché novel. Lucy comes from a lower class background, but earns a scholarship into a fancy private school where she struggles navigating the subtle teenage girl politics. Several iconic, thematically similar novels pop right to mind as you start reading. However, both Lucy and her story develop into something unique as you keep reading.
Lucy is a very smart girl, but quiet and withdrawn. She plans to coast through her high school experience, attracting as little attention to herself as possible. That idea goes out the window when she catches the eye of “the Cabinet,” the student nickname for a trio of popular girls who pretty much control the school, including the teachers, with petty but effective emotional warfare.
The Cabinet a tiresome trope, but I invested in this book so much because I found myself intensely relating to Lucy. She’s a hard worker who believes in work ethic for the sake of itself rather than for recognition. In fact, it embarrasses her when her work ethic, or anything else, draws too much attention her way. She’s smart, but many around her think having nothing to say is the same as having nothing to think. She wants to avoid drama, but finds sometimes it seeks her out. I connected most strongly, though, to her introverted side. Especially when things become convoluted or overwhelming, Lucy sneaks off to spend time by herself. Her peers find this weird and suspect, and I encountered similar confusion in my teenage years when I had social offers but opted for alone time instead. The book puts it very well: “As a general rule, teenage girls never, ever see solitude as a choice.”
This is a thought-provoking novel with plenty to discuss, especially around themes of class, privilege, and race. Lucy overhears one of her teacher’s friends refer to Lucy as “your little Pygmalion project.” Lucy may not know what that means, but we do. A good portion of this book is about Lucy’s slow revelation that sometimes by standing aside you are part of the problem. She wanted to stay tucked out of the way minding her own business, but as she sees behavior she detests she has to decide what’s worth more: taking a stand or minding her own business.
The whole book is told in first person as though Lucy is addressing an old friend from her previous life, Linh. So there’s some second person as well, directed at Linh. I think I found the format a little confusing and hard to get into, which is why the book grew on me so slowly. We don’t know that much about Linh, and it’s easy to forget she exists, except every now and then Lucy throws her name into the middle of a sentence as a reminder: everything’s being told to Linh. All that said, trust the author. There’s an unexpected twist about why the author chose this format. The twist is exceptionally well done and makes everything clear after the big reveal.