Give me YA contemporaries featuring Chinese Americans any day! Heiress Apparently is not only an entertaining story of hidden secrets, but also discusses racism in Hollywood. It’s one of those books which leaves you with a smile on your face, while also tackling issues of representation and agency. Keep reading this book review of Heiress Apparently to see what I thought as a Chinese American reader!
Gemma Huang is a recent transplant to Los Angeles from Illinois, having abandoned plans for college to pursue a career in acting, much to the dismay of her parents. Now she’s living with three roommates in a two-bedroom hovel, auditioning for bit roles that hardly cover rent. Gemma’s big break comes when she’s asked to play a lead role in an update of M. Butterfly filming for the summer in Beijing.
When she arrives, she’s stopped by paparazzi at the airport. She quickly realizes she may as well be the twin of one of the most notorious young socialites in Beijing. Thus kicks off a summer of revelations, in which Gemma uncovers a legacy her parents have spent their lives protecting her from—one her mother would conceal from her daughter at any cost.
(Disclaimer: I received this book from Netgalley. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
TW: homophobia (which is challenged in the book)
Heiress Apparently hit me when I was in the mood for a fun contemporary. And while I definitely think this book was entertaining and charming, but it also sheds light on the difficulties of representation of Asian Americans in Hollywood. Gemma wants to break into acting, despite her lack of parental support, and she deals with casting calls that type cast her – before she even steps in the room – and having to decide if she should take certain roles which may perpetuate stereotypes.
It’s a question that other actors do not have to consider. Throughout Heiress Apparently Gemma has to make the tough decisions of whether to speak up about the representation and whether she should just say nothing because of her big role. Representation can change someone’s life. The validation and possibilities when we see a figure like us on the screens. But in cinematic history there’s been plenty of misrepresentation, as well as problematic role models.
As a Chinese American, I appreciated the ways Ma discuses the difficulties for Gemma as she strives to break into Hollywood. At the same time, Heiress Apparently is a story focused on romance, family, and speaking up for oneself. Gemma’s trip to China unearths family secrets that have been buried for decades and paid for in blood and tears. Gemma’s journey is one with many ups and downs, but she has to learn when to make a stand. What lines she will not compromise and when she needs to speak up. There were some scenes that frustrated me, but I realize that figuring it out, with your career on the line as well, can be incredibly complex.
It doesn’t shy away from the censorship in China and, at the same time, looks at unknown facts of China’s history. Heiress Apparently always prioritizes finding the truth and asking questions, no matter what – even if you think it’s too late. A theme that hit close to home was also the divide between being Chinese and Chinese American. What that extra piece of identity means to both Chinese and Americans.
As I’ve said before, Heiress Apparently delivers both entertainment and thoughtful conversations. Throughout the book, Ma illustrates that what we see on social media only tells one side of the story. How history doesn’t portray the facts or appreciate the nuance of complex women. Even when we have the remnants, we never truly know what happened, so we build our own images and expectations on it. That’s why it’s so important to appreciate the complexity and see the figures in their context.