Fiona and Jane (or Jane and Fiona, depending on who you ask) have been best friends since second grade. Over the years their closeness waxes and wanes, but they’re always within each other’s orbit, offering solace for heartbreak, family crises, identity struggles, and more. Beautiful, ambitious Fiona attracts attention wherever she goes and, having never known her father, keeps her mother close and the memories of their brief time in Taiwan even closer. She moves to New York with her boyfriend after college to attend law school and chase after internships, but a devastating heartbreak, loneliness, and financial ruin sends her back home to California. Jane, quieter and less confident than Fiona, is raised by her demanding and religious mother once her father moves to Taiwan for work. When Jane discovers and reveals her father’s secret, she finds her family changed forever.
Fiona and Jane has received considerable buzz, but I have mixed feelings about the book. I love Jean Chen Ho’s writing style. She packs an emotional punch in such simple language, and the characters are authentic and flawed. Chapters “Korean Boys I’ve Loved” and “Go Slow” are true standouts for how they tangle with the messy emotions of friendship and romantic love; Jean Chen Ho writes about how you can be competitive with a friend, but not jealous, and how you can feel lonely even within close relationships. The friendship between Fiona and Jane feels real. They move away, have misunderstandings, and keep secrets from each other, all while still being deeply concerned and invested in their friendship. Fiona and Jane is written as a series of short stories, with alternating viewpoints and time periods, and this is where the book loses its effectiveness. We only get to see glimpses of Fiona and Jane instead of witnessing their full journey; the book doesn’t offer much in terms of character development. Jane, in particular, could have closure or a full-circle moment when it comes to her father’s death and her queer identity but after spending the first few chapters with her, Jean Chen Ho doesn’t return to Jane until the end and ultimately bypasses the opportunity. We learn a lot about Fiona through her relationships with others, but her identity as she sees it feels largely hidden. Despite the structure, the little moments of friendship that Jean Chen Ho captures are beautiful. It’ll be worth seeing how her work develops after this debut.