I love finding new books to read, so I am always excited to look at the year-end reading lists that come out this time of year. I saw NPR’s list first, and that’s where I first saw Disorientation (2022) by Elaine Hsieh Chou (in my favorite section: “eye-opening reads”). The blurb reminded me of a romance novel that we’d read for book club–The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood–I guess because it was about a woman suffering through another PhD program. I’m very glad I picked it up, but it was nothing like The Love Hypothesis.
Taiwanese-American Ingrid Yang was strong-armed by her adviser into writing her dissertation on her college’s Chinese-American poet star–Xiao-Wen Chou. But she is struggling. “She waded into her dissertation first with tempered optimism, and then as the years dragged on, with increasing despair, until her research consisted primarily of scratching and sniffing herself.”
Fortunately, she has her dear fiancé to support her. Stephen has always been loving and kind–so much better than all of her previous boyfriends. “Stephen and Ingrid clicked into each other’s lives like two sturdy plastic furniture parts from IKEA fastening together. You couldn’t wrench them apart without breaking something.” (27) I initially appreciated that Elaine Hsieh Chou gave Ingrid a significant other who wasn’t some dreamy, made up ideal of a boyfriend, but a dependable, loving man.
At first Disorientation seemed like a witty story about a woman struggling with her dissertation. But then Ingrid suspects something, and it kind of turns into a mystery adventure with two best friends– Ingrid and Eunice Kim–acting as amateur detectives. But when Ingrid uncovers some unknown information about Xiao-Wen Chou, it starts a domino of events that change how Ingrid sees herself as well as most everyone around her. Really, the book ends up being about racism. In the beginning of the book, Ingrid is determined to look beyond race, and her childhood plays into this inclination. But revelation after revelation, regarding Xiao-Wen Chou, her adviser, her school, her boyfriend, her best friend, and even her academic enemy, Vivian Vo, forces her to reexamine everything.
I wasn’t expecting this twist, but it made for a smart, sometimes discomfiting book. I was frustrated by Ingrid in the middle of the book. I didn’t understand why she was lying to her boyfriend and best friend. I wished she would just be honest with them, but in the end it was understandable that she needed time to figure things out.
I thought this book was original, thought-provoking, and well written. It is both hilarious and disturbing. Although the story felt a little uneven in the middle, and Ingrid is sometimes frustrating, I would definitely recommend this one.
“How was it possible to be so desired and so hated, the two intertwined like heads of the same beast?” (265)
You can find all my reviews on my blog.