Friday, 15 January 2016

Review: Welcome to Envy Park by Mina V. Esguerra

4 stars

Welcome to Envy Park is that rarest of all things: a novella that felt like a full-length novel. The narrator and protagonist, Moira Vasquez, has moved back to her hometown of Manila after working abroad in Singapore for several years, but she only intends for it to be a temporary stopping place before she moves on to another overseas destination. That's the plan, and having a good apartment and the possibility of a relationship with her neighbour Ethan isn't going to change anything. Neither is the realisation that, whereas all her friends have careers, moving around means Moira only ever has jobs. After all, this is what she wants, isn't it?

The 'heroine trying to figure out her life' is a familiar starting point for chick-lit books, but Moira is wonderfully nuanced and never strays towards trainwreck territory that is such a mainstay of the genre. Her quarter-life crisis was believable and - for me as a twenty-something - eminently relatable. I particularly appreciated Esguerra's understanding that adjusting our preconceptions about how - and where - we will live is often a fraught process. 

Ethan is going through a similar transition. While Moira has her life planned out to a T, he has always just gone with the flow. But he's realising see that, maybe, if he wants something (or someone) he might actually have to go out and get it (or her). 

Despite the fact that the characters and plot were as well-developed as one would expect from a novel, I'm still left with a little of my classic novella complaint that things were wrapped up too quickly. Once Ethan had his lightbulb moment, it was "okay, we'll be together, THE END" and I was looking forward to actually seeing him and Moira as a couple.  

Esguerra also overturned my nebulous preconceptions about Manila, which is only ever featured in the Australian media when a typhoon hits, at which point our 7 o'clock news has some 10-second clips of corrugated iron being ripped from shanties and people walking waist-deep in water. In my ignorance, I'd failed to appreciate that, as with many other Asian cities, Manila is home to a burgeoning middle class and the infrastructure that accompanies them.

That's the point of me undertaking my Beyond a Single Story Challenge this year. I'm still ironing out the details, but I hope to fill out my understanding of the Philippines a little bit by reading at least one historical set there, and one non-fiction book. If anyone has any recommendations or suggestions, particularly for the NF, I would be most grateful.

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