Maurene Goo is at it again.
As with her 2017 showstopper, “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” Goo’s new novel, The Way You Make Me Feel, features a Southern Californian teenager with Korean heritage, living with her single dad.
That and the pop/rock title, however, are where the similarities end.
Where Desi Lee was a list-making overachiever, Clara Shin is a sardonic slacker for whom effort is the ultimate sin. She’s stubborn, easily bored, nourished by mayhem and 7-11 junk food. She and her crew of lazy, ultra-hip ne’er-do-wells love to prank Rose Carver, Clara’s longtime nemesis.
“Everything about her rubbed me the wrong way: her inability to chill; her uptight, follow-the-rules compulsion; her stupid narc tendencies to get ahead in life,” grouses Clara. “So, whenever I could, I made life very untidy and chaotic for her. ... Like the time I coordinated a flash mob during her first dance competition. Or the time I added sugar to all the lettuce in the salad bar where she got her lunch every day. Any punishment handed to me was always worth it.”
When a prom prank goes awry, Clara and Rose are held responsible. In lieu of suspension, they must work at Clara’s dad’s Korean-Brazilian food truck, the KoBra, to earn enough to pay for the damages.
Being crammed in a hot, greasy truck for minimum-wage food service is not their ideal summer. Plus, it means Clara can’t go to Tulum with her mom, a globetrotting social media influencer. (If you’ve read Emma Chastain’s “Confessions of a High School Disaster,” you’ll recognize this particular strain of flighty, narcissistic women with dreamy lives and damaged daughters.)
With time, Clara and Rose warm to each other, and Clara begins to appreciate how it feels to actually put in effort. She and Rose befriend a fellow food trucker, the brilliant (and cute, obvs) Hamlet Wong, whose easy smiles and lack of pretense astonish Clara. Her new friends’ open-hearted forthrightness, and her increasing pride in her dad’s business, feel strangely right.
As with Jane and Katherine in “Dread Nation,” Clara and Rose embark on an enemies-frenemies-friends arc. I’m pleased to see that plot device again; it’s always a good time to remind readers that different doesn’t mean evil.
The ineluctable clash between new and old friends forces Clara to decide which version of herself she wants to be – a rabble-rousing brat whose sarcasm masks vulnerability, or an authentic girl who risks embarrassment by actually investing her heart?
“The Way You Make Me Feel” sparkles with Maurene Goo’s trademark wit and warmth. She has such a way of interweaving blossoms (“Pity unfurled from Rose like ribbons”) with sharp edges (“Making a fool of myself in front of cute dudes was literally the opposite of my brand”).
She also writes the best single dads I’ve ever read. They try, they fail, they dream big.
Clara’s dad struggles to redraw the line between parent and friend after the disastrous prom prank. He laments, “There’s no good reason why you should get into so much trouble. The only reason is that I’ve been slacking, trying not to be overbearing like my parents were. But it’s clearly backfired. I’ve been getting my act together for the KoBra, but not with you.”
What a coup: to write a father and daughter experiencing the same struggle, the same need to change, but keep it subtle. Goo’s writerly technique makes me feel, dare I say, gooey inside.
And yet, to me, her greatest achievement here is to pinpoint the classic instinct to be chill, instead of genuine. The moment this dawns on Clara is stunning.
“Although we were sitting there eating a Transformers cake off of paper plates with colorful ponies on them, there was a conspicuous lack of irony in this moment,” she thinks. “...I had become so used to a certain behavior with Patrick and Felix. Where everything was a joke, a mockery, a way to separate ourselves from feeling stuff for real.
“It was easier not to feel the real stuff – and Patrick the slacker was all about easy. Felix, he was so preoccupied with being cool all the time. And Rose and Hamlet? I watched them set up the Connect 4 we had purchased at the dollar store and immediately throw themselves into it, competitive and serious within seconds. They were the opposite of that. They were all in.”
“The Way You Make Me Feel” is an intensely LA story (which this former Angeleno adored): complaints about freeway traffic, streets lined with jacaranda, the Griffith Park observatory. It’s also the ultimate 2018 tale: food trucks, sriracha, Instagram Stories. Despite this image-conscious setting, Clara Shin learns to value authenticity and real confidence.
Now that’s #goals.