Rating: 2.75 stars
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Length: Novel

 

Aki Taan was four years old when his neighbor brought home a beautiful baby boy. Ever since then, Aki and Tsung have been inseparable. It’s been twenty-three years and their friendship is as strong as ever. Tsung visits Aki’s family’s cafe every morning for a pineapple cake and a soy latte before heading to work. Aki always goes to Tsung’s barbershop to get his hair cut. They also have a precious tradition of always spending New Year’s Eve together watching fireworks. And both deeply hope that this year, there will be more than just fireworks in the sky. The trouble is that both Aki and Tsung’s mothers are terrible gossips and very old-fashioned. The women have reached a boiling point concerning the troubling rumors that Tsung is gay and his friendship with Aki will turn Aki gay. So, the two mothers find a matchmaker who comes up with the perfect solution: Aki marries Tsung’s older sister, Chi-Ling.

Aki doesn’t necessarily want to marry Chi-Ling, let alone any woman. However, he has reason to believe there is a grain of truth to the unsavory rumor about Tsung being not only gay, but also a paid companion. Hurt by the idea that his dearest friend has clearly been keeping secrets, and unable to go against the wishes of his elders, Aki agrees to marry Chi-Ling. He may be sacrificing his only chance at being happy, but Aki’s hurt feelings, an uncompromising desire to obey his elders, and a sense of saving both him and Tsung from the stigma from being officially outed is too great. Not long after the wedding, Aki gains a family and loses a family member as his life refocused in a way he never wanted, but is determined to live. Tsung disappears without a single word and sets up a new life in a big city, for all intents and purposes cutting all ties with his family and with Aki. Everything should have been a heteronormative happily ever after. But it doesn’t take long for Aki, Tsung, and their families to come to regret living to keep up appearances.

Love at First Sight by Shawn Bailey may be set in present-day Taiwan, but the majority of the supporting cast and Aki himself are only too happy to adhere to the social norms of the olden days. It’s a roller coaster ride of unrequited love, opportunistic sex, generational clashes, generational strife, homophobia, and lots and lots of living to work.

There was a lot about this story—or, well, one character—that I wasn’t completely sold on. But allow me to start with what I did enjoy. Surprisingly, for a get-together story about Aki and Tsung, I found myself fascinated by those two characters’ mothers. They have their own journey of discovery that sees them shift their views from unapologetically anti-gay, to repenting, to tacitly accepting. Amazingly, I also found Chi-Ling to be a delight, even as she fulfilled a sort of bitch role by marrying Aki while knowing he and her brother were in love. Chi-Ling was the only character to call anyone on their bullshit, even as she drops loads of her own BS. 

Another positive for me was the pacing. From start to finish, about four or five years elapse. Even when there were big skips in time, Bailey managed to string the events together to emphasize plot elements without bogging the story down in minutiae. One example is how the opening of the book establishes that Aki and Tsung clearly have very unrequited feelings for one another. That chunk of time ends with their mothers’ meddling, getting a matchmaker involved, and the announcement of Aki’s engagement. The next part of the book skips almost right to the wedding. Several of these time jumps serve to emphasize also how Tsung removes himself from family situations to avoid making himself or anyone else feel uncomfortable. Not to mention the fact that his mother forced his father to confront Tsung about being gay, which results in Tsung’s father beating Tsung so badly, he gets a concussion and ends up in the hospital. (TW for the off page, but very open-secret fact that Tsung experiences a hate crime by his own father.)

Even with these highlights, I found the book overall to be less than enjoyable. One small, but noticeable to me issue was with the prose. I wasn’t sure why Taiwanese people would be thinking in imperial units (e.g. Fahrenheit instead of Celsius). I also found the language stilted at times. There was some confusing language around gender identity, too (e.g. Aki asking Tsung if he’d “gotten himself fixed”).

The big turn off for me? Frankly, I found Aki utterly repugnant. My initial impression of him was as a sort of closeted queer man who didn’t know what to do with the feelings he had for Tsung. But however much Aki may have loved Tsung, nothing would dissuade him from appeasing his mother. So what’s the problem with that? The fact that Aki didn’t seem to care that he was, for all intents and purposes, sacrificing both his and Tsung’s shot at happiness. Despite reminding himself that not only is it (legally anyway) okay to be gay in Taiwan, same-sex marriages are even possible. I didn’t care so much that Aki followed through with his marriage to Chi-Ling with aplomb (he even knocks up his wife like a dutiful husband), but I didn’t feel like he ever said, thought, or acted like giving up the man he loved was anything but a foregone conclusion. 

Other nails in the “I think Aki is a terrible person” coffin were: Aki suspects Tsung’s father beat the shit out of him and Aki does literally nothing about it. Not calling out Tsung’s homophobic father feels 100% spot-on for respect-your-elders-at-all-costs Aki, but the fact that he doesn’t offer any moral support or anything to Tsung was just mindblowingly gross to me. Aki seems to push Tsung for sex on the eve of his wedding to Chi-Ling, but rather than declarations of love and affection, Aki refuses to believe Tsung is a so-called butt virgin and tells the supposed love of his life to stop being a baby about the whole thing. Aki harbors slut shaming vibes for his wife after he finds out that she wasn’t a virgin when they got married: “[Aki] had given up the man he loved for his fat, unattractive sister who wasn’t a virgin.” Several months after Tsung disappeared into the big city, Aki randomly tracks him down and sort of recreates the night they fucked on the eve of Aki’s wedding—except this time, it’s strictly mutual masturbation because then, Aki’s technically not cheating on his wife.

Overall, I just couldn’t get into this story because I found the main character to be distractingly odious. Aki came across as a trash person and I just didn’t feel like I understood how or why he was so awful. I’ve read a few books that star bona fide bad characters, but there was usually something compelling about them. I didn’t find anything compelling about Aki. He just took the path of least resistance, accepted what came his way, and took advantage of Tsung when the mood struck.