Rating: 4.25 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

After Sophie Chi gives her roommate some good advice, it’s suggested she do the same for others. Sophie takes the idea seriously and goes about “restoring balance in people’s lives as a neutral third-party observer” via an Instagram advice account called “Dear Wendy.” She spends much of her limited free time working on her posts, and it becomes one of her favorite activities.

Joanna Ephron starts her own account, “Sincerely Wanda,” as a tongue-in-cheek joke for one of her/their roommates after she ended a terrible relationship. It’s a parody account she’s surprised people follow, but Sincerely Wanda evolves into a fun and irreverent alternative to Dear Wendy’s earnest seriousness.

When Sophie learns of the Sincerely Wanda account, she’s upset and reaches out to Jo to suss out the situation. Jo immediately finds Sophie’s cautious overture as “passive-aggressive bullsh!t,” and starts antagonizing “Wendy” on her posts. Sophie finds “Wanda” rude and unserious. She tries to shake off her annoyance, but soon she’s returning shots. As their online skirmishes become a ridiculous battle, in the real world Jo and Sophie bond over being aroace. They find joy in someone who personally understands the frustrations of their asexuality and aromanticism being swallowed by the belief that romantic, allosexual love is the ideal for a fulfilled life. Soon their friendship blossoms into a deep trust and honesty neither expected, but treasure nonetheless. However, when both accounts give questionable advice due to a complication, their online identities are in danger of being compromised, and the situation may explode their friendship as well.

Dear Wendy is a charming, comedic, and didactic love story about platonic love from a debut author. The novel is steeped in college culture, particularly the unique experience of matriculating at an all-women’s institution. Through the eyes of the two first-year students, it tackles societal attitudes and strictures, and their effects on gender, sexuality, being a person of color, misogyny, etc. to varying degrees of depth (and success) within a conversational narrative structure. By her own admission Jo is selfish and lacks empathy, but she’s also a vulnerable hot mess that forms an unlikely friendship with the confident, outwardly put-together and overly competitive Sophie. The book has a good cast of delightfully queer characters discovering themselves through romantic goings-on, camaraderie, and unconditional care and encouragement.

For Sophie that encouragement does not come from her parents. They expect her to conform to their idea of success—an education at a “gold standard” institution like Harvard, a respectable job, and marriage and children. They are disappointed she chose Wellesley and completely dismiss her romantic disinterest. Sophie’s achievements and needs are largely shaped by and in opposition to being first generation Chinese-American. She is high strung, exacting, and fastidious, in part because of her desire to honor her parents’ sacrifices. Knowing she will never be subjected to hardships like theirs, she feels guilty for complaining, but is hurt and disappointed that they negate her asexuality and aromanticism. To Sophie, Dear Wendy provides the objective and open-minded help she wishes to receive from her parents. She treats the account like a professional responsibility, so she considers Sincerely Wanda not only careless and unhelpful, but a personal affront. Her competitive nature turns Wanda from someone making fun of her, to an archnemesis trying to undermine her.

For Jo, Sincerely Wanda is a persona, a form of escape. She can ignore her conflicted feelings regarding her abhorrence of dating and how fiercely she hates it when her friends participate. She can ignore her conflicted feelings about her gender identity, and she can ignore her conflicted worries about ending up alone and wishing for the “normal” experience of romantic partnership. For all her bravado and nonchalance, Jo is VERY insecure. She believes she’s an unformed disaster and questions everything about herself, including her importance to her friends. Her thoughts typically end in the ‘does she/them even like me’ category. Between her insecurity and fear of losing friends to The One, she’s a bundle of anxiety, doubt, and angst. Jo has no trust in herself or her lovability, and Wanda allows her to be confident and devil-may-care.

Sophie wears her insecurity about losing allosexual friends and being judged for her various identities differently than Jo and is less accepting of them. Despite her unhappiness on the parental front, she’s self-assured and believes she’s figured herself out. However, she’s not as self-aware as she thinks. She advises Jo not care about others’ opinions and assures Jo she’s beyond all that, but Sophie cares a great deal about how she presents to the world, not being taken seriously, and not being the best in all her pursuits.

Besides having opposite personalities, their nascent journeys to their aroace identities are also opposite. Sophie receives no approval or acceptance from her parents other than for her extremely high standards and work ethic, while Jo is supported in every way. Jo has an open and outwardly loving relationship with her moms who do everything in their power to nurture Jo. Jo and Sophie illustrate the variability of lived experiences among those with shared identities and the complications of intersectionality that shape who they are, how they see the world, and what helps inform how they understand being aroace.

This dualism conveys the motif of people containing multitudes and the shortsightedness of relegating people to boxes (even oneself). Their differences bring more balance to their extreme traits and provides opportunities for growth. This dualistic approach is quite on the nose, but the characters are developed and likeable enough that the strict duality didn’t hinder my enjoyment. The one place it isn’t cultivated as equally is with their other pressing identity concern—Jo’s struggle with her gender expression and Sophie being Chinese-American. I wish there was a bit more exploration of this aspect of Jo’s existential crisis. I feel like Sophie’s issues are interwoven into the entire narrative, but Jo’s is addressed early on and only given passing commentary a few times.

Additionally, these (ironically) binary personalities, combined with the writing style, create the book’s main weakness for me. Often the story feels like a lecture; it’s as if I’m taking their gender studies class as well. It’s an interesting lecture to be sure, but a scholastic endeavor in my nonrom-com nonetheless. The book is also a bit overlong, like that professor who always goes overtime. I do find these aspects balanced enough with the deep and sometimes vulnerable conversations to (mostly) flow with the educational vibes. Besides, how many of us philosophized and waxed poetic about our recently obtained knowledge between classes?

I enjoyed Dear Wendy and found it a delightful and heartwarming combination of intense focus on petty nonsense and a thoughtful and engaging journey into self-discovery. Plus, that cover is absolute perfection!