It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Mary H.K. Choi and have been anticipating this novel’s release for two years. It’s wild to think back to when I originally fell in love with Choi’s writing after reading Emergency Contact. At the time, I can vividly remember being on Goodreads and reading a very vague synopsis about Jayne and June’s sisterhood, and I was hooked. Mary H.K. Choi can do no wrong in my opinion, and after reading her second novel I was even more eager to read Yolk. It was perhaps my most anticipated book of 2021, and it means a whole lot to me as someone who sees herself in both Jayne and June.
This story is told from the perspective of Jayne Baek, a fashion student in New York who is surrounded by friends and a bum of a “boyfriend” who really doesn’t connect with her in any meaningful way. As she struggles with finances and an eating disorder, her estranged sister June finds her one night, pulling her into her life. June lives a very different lifestyle than her younger sister, and soon they are living and working together to save June’s life after she’s diagnosed with cancer.
THIS BOOK. I honestly don’t even know where to start. I knew Yolk was going to be a tough one to get through, and it was, but it was so worthwhile. Even though the story is still fresh in my mind, and the experience of reading it was so lovely, I wish I could read it again for the first time. It was raw and so freaking real and painful. As someone with a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, sisters, and my own body, it felt very personal to read a character who stares down into a toilet bowl to “fix” herself like I have. Deeply rooted issues of shame and perfection have not, in my opinion, been explored in the way Choi does in her work, and she manages to make these topics “characters” in and of themselves. Shame is a looming entity in the novel that takes a different form for every person, and it not only surrounds food but also perceptions of identity and culture.
Choi does a beautiful job of representing her Korean American characters, and it is very apparent that she’s writing in part for that community to be really seen on-page. Choi makes a point in Yolk about how Asian people are often seen as a monolith, and how it’s easy for the sisters to walk around together and be misidentified because people don’t pay attention to the nuisances in their faces. To say the least, this is extremely messed up, but it’s also really honest. That is one of the many reasons I love Choi’s writing: it’s messy, palpable, and complex. There are people out there who are like each of her characters, and I love them so much for it.
As I’ve said before, I saw myself within the sisters: I’m a middle child (which is its own monster), but I’m also someone who grew up with the thought that my life was indebted to my parents and their parents. This stemmed from the idea that I was to be “my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” which has been constantly iterated to me in some form or another. There’s just so much in Yolk that made me feel seen and made me cry as a result. It’s weird to feel this kind of attachment to a work because it’s sort of a mix of embarrassment and shame to share that books have aided me in my journey toward self-love more than anything, or anyone, else has. Mary H.K. Choi’s books in particular grew with me because of how they comforted me about topics like mental health, school anxiety, and my fears (which are plentiful), and just by showing that there are stories out there for people like me. Choi’s writing helped me be comfortable with being uncomfortable when it comes to things I don’t know. In many ways, Yolk has also greatly helped me with just being able to talk candidly about my relationships with food, intimacy, my body, and health. Like Jayne, I’ve yearned for who I was and who I could be, and as Choi says in Yolk, “sometimes the best thing to do is talk about it.”
Apart from just my connection to her catalog of books, I think Choi is most successful in her manifestation of ambiance. Her stories, including Yolk, feature a strong sense of what places could be and mean for different people. New York and Texas are characters that collide in this novel and are so fantastic in the way they do. I love how New York is portrayed as this grimy, chaotic, lively place that just sucks you in; it’s so vast and crowded at the same time, but Texas is vast in such a different way. It feels close to home because of the small-town vibes that emanate from everything that Jayne and June do, contrasting with their big-city lives in New York. Food is also a character in Choi’s novels, and I really appreciate how indulgent she can be in describing a made-up concoction. However, in Yolk, it takes on a very different persona. Like shame, it looms above everything; food is almost addictive because of how it can sometimes feel like a chore to consume, how it will never be fulfilling, but you can’t physically stop eating. The idea of being able to “reset” by throwing up was so heart-wrenching to witness.
There are themes of sisterhood, resentment, betrayal, seuxuality, self-loathing, consent, life and death, and much more in Yolk. There’s something dysfunctional about how Jayne and June interact, and I love it so very much. It makes me yearn for something so varied and strong like what they have. Their relationship with their parents is another element that was so real because of the disconnected, unknowingness of it all. People are obnoxious and spiteful and hilarious and all messed-up in ways we all can’t confront. I haven’t even addressed the romantic relationships in this story because there’s just so much to unpack. To say the very least of it, I love it. I love Patrick and the suddenness and comfort he and Jayne share. I want people to read this novel for themselves because it’s truly a masterpiece among many others from Choi. I would love to one day thank her for putting so much of herself on the page and for allowing me to personally reckon with a lot of my own traumas.
Be kind to yourself.
Trigger Warnings for Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi: Disordered eating (bulimia and binge eating), dysmorphia, cheating, mental illness, cancer, racism, sexual assault, parental abandonment, slurs, mentions of abuse
PRR Writer, Jackie Balbastro