*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*
Title: From Little Tokyo, With Love
Author: Sarah Kuhn
Publisher: Viking Books
Publication Date: May 11, 2021
Synopsis from Goodreads:
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.
Cute, light-hearted, and sweet, From Little Tokyo, With Love explores the idea of what it means to belong—to a family, to different communities, to the world. It’s got some intense themes: race and biracial experience, mental health, family, tradition, motherhood, understanding emotion, self-discovery, abandonment. It sets the tone for a really positive story. There’s a lot of potential in this book. The story is sweet—a modern fairy tale. A girl meets a boy and he treats her with respect and supports her on her journey to reunite her with her long-lost mother, and they fall in love. It’s lots of cotton candy fluff.
Rika doesn’t really fit in. She is half-Japanese, she doesn’t know her mother, she is being raised alongside her cousins, and no one really seems to see her as she truly is. She is viewed as a troublemaker and a disruptor. Her community has latched on to every negative thing in her life and it torments her constantly. No one believes her capable of change. She feels so different than her princess-obsessed cousins. She likes demons and dark stories. She feels rage deep within her that she fights to quell. She feels intensely misunderstood. But when she meets Henry, that all changes. He SEES her. He knows her true self and loves her for it. For Rika, he is a breath of fresh air. As they embark on an epic quest to discover the truth about Rika’s mother, their relationship grows and blossoms.
I really enjoyed that the protagonist, Rika, truly does seem to have a significant development in her character. She’s aware of her flaws—perhaps a bit too aware and repetitive in her address of her flaws—but because of her awareness, she is constantly working to overcome her difficulties. She experiences real growth and change as the book progresses. She rises to a new level as the book concludes and we really see her strength, power, and agency triumph. She becomes a force for change and unity. It’s truly a beautiful and happy ending.
But there is a lot that is troubling and problematic in this book. Firstly, Rika’s rage. It’s mentioned repetitively to the point of annoyance. Rika honestly needs to be discussing her rage issues with a professional. She struggles with it daily and it consumes her wholly. Henry reframed and redirects it, labelling her “passionate” instead, but Rika truly believes herself to be full of darkness. Her self-image is not inline with who she really is and speaks to her self-esteem. It’s concerning how often that she has the internal struggle to tamp down her anger. Rika repeatedly refers to herself as a monster. It’s really hit home too frequently. She’s a young girl with a lot going for her and for her to have such a negative self-image and to be so out of control where there is so much good in her life actually detracts from the overall story arc. It begins to jar the reader out of the story after a while.
Secondly, I had an immense amount of difficulty trying to understand the Little Tokyo community’s view of Rika as a whole. Based on a few actions from her youth, she has been identified as the black sheep. She is not Japanese enough, a “half breed,” too disruptive, always living up to the negative image that they have of her. She doesn’t love princesses the way her cousins do. She’s not quiet and demure. She has regular angry outbursts. The community’s intense judgement boardering on cruel and immature. It’s totally unfounded. Rika is so young. She is heavily involved in her community through her family restaurant and through her dedication to her dojo, yet she is labelled the outcast. It just doesn’t really make sense as to why she’s such an outsider.
Overall though, it is a light story with some great discussions. It makes topics such as mental health, LGBTQ relationships, understanding one’s emotions, and new romantic relationships accessible to younger readers. One thing to note though, as a warning, this book does have pretty aggressive throughout which seems quite excessive for a book that’s targeted at 14+.