Published by Simon Pulse on September 26th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
When I first requested Akemi Dawn Bowman’s novel, Starfish, I didn’t really know much about it other than the fact that it had one of the most gorgeous book covers I’ve ever seen. I was completely unprepared for the emotional punch this book would pack. Covering a wide spectrum of heavy subjects such as sexual and emotional abuse as well as suicide, Starfish is not an easy read by any means, but ultimately it is a powerful story about discovering who you really are and what you want out of life.
Starfish follows the story of Kiko Himura, a high school senior who suffers from social anxiety and therefore often has trouble expressing herself and fitting in. Kiko, however, is also a gifted artist who uses her art to say what she can’t seem to say with words. One of Kiko’s biggest dreams is to get into the prestigious Prism art school. She feels like once she gets away from home and can throw herself into her art, her real life can finally begin.
Kiko is also half Japanese and her parents are divorced. She lives with her mother, who is blond haired, blue eyed and is obsessed with her appearance. She also constantly makes Kiko feel unattractive and implies that she would be more attractive if she were not of Asian descent. Her mother is also a narcissist and so whenever Kiko tries to talk to her, she always manages to twist the topic around and make it about herself. On top of that, instead of supporting Kiko in what she is passionate about, Kiko’s mom belittles her art and can’t be bothered to attend Kiko’s art shows at school.
Then, as if Kiko’s mom isn’t bad enough, Kiko’s abusive uncle moves in with them. After an incident that took place the last time he lived in their house when Kiko woke up and found him in her bedroom, Kiko now refuses to live in the same house as him. She tells her mother as much, but her mom ignores her and tells her she is being overly dramatic about what happened.
Kiko longs for her mother to believe her and support her and let her know that she cares, but it just feels like that’s never going to happen. She knows she needs to get away from the toxic environment that she is living in, but her dreams are shattered when she receives a rejection notice from Prism. Having applied to no other schools, Kiko doesn’t have a Plan B. How will she recover from this unexpected rejection? Will she ever get the support and affection that she so craves from her mother or does Plan B involve starting over alone somewhere new? What happens next for Kiko?
I fell in love with Kiko right away. As someone who also tends to get very anxious in social situations, I felt an immediate connection to Kiko as I watched her struggle to interact both at school and at parties. The author did a wonderful job in those scenes of portraying social anxiety and how truly crippling it can be.
Kiko was also a favorite of mine because she’s such a sympathetic character. In addition to her social anxiety issues, her home life is just awful. It’s hard enough being a child of divorced parents, but it’s especially hard if you feel like the parent you’re living with doesn’t seem to care about you and either ignores you or criticizes you every time they see you. I absolutely loathed Kiko’s mother and the way she treated Kiko. At the same time though, I completely understood why Kiko kept trying to connect with her and kept trying to show her the art she was working on. It’s completely natural for a child to want their parent’s approval and it was heartbreaking to watch Kiko keep getting rejected every time she tried. I just wanted to give her a big hug and tell her she deserved better because it was obviously killing Kiko’s sense of self-worth.
Even though Kiko’s mom had no interest in Kiko’s artwork, I sure did. Some of my favorite scenes in Starfish were where we got to see Kiko immerse herself in her art. Watching her completely at ease with herself because she’s in her element and then reading the author’s descriptions of what she was actually drawing and painting honestly made me wish the book was illustrated. The art work sounded so gorgeous and magical!
Aside from Kiko herself, some of the other elements of Starfish I really enjoyed were the overall themes. There is a huge focus on beauty, with a specific emphasis on the message that there is no set idea for what is considered beautiful. We’re all beautiful in our own unique way, and someone who is Asian is just as beautiful as someone who happens to be blond and blue-eyed. To go along with that truth about what is beautiful, there is also a huge emphasis on self-love. You should love yourself exactly as you are and not let anyone make you feel bad about yourself.
Along the lines of accepting that you’re beautiful just the way you are, Starfish can also be considered a powerful coming of age story. After she is rejected from the art school of her dreams, Kiko embarks on a journey of self-discovery to slowly but surely figure out who she really is, what she wants from life, and how she can stand on her own two feet regardless of whether or not she has her mother’s support and approval. It’s an often painful journey for Kiko, but in the end, it’s a beautiful one that is full of hope and promise.
One final element of the story that I liked was Kiko’s reunion with a long-lost friend from her childhood. There is a romantic element there and I liked the way the author handled the transition from friends to lovers. I also liked that the romance wasn’t just a way for Kiko to escape her home life, but that in a twist I really liked, it also presented Kiko with some unexpected opportunities and allowed her to make some empowering decisions about her future.
Aside from my utter dislike of Kiko’s mother, I don’t really have anything for this section. And even though I completely disliked her, she was still an incredibly well drawn character and served an important purpose in Kiko’s story.
I think Starfish is going to be one of those books that I will continue to think about long after finishing the last page. As I mentioned earlier, it packs an emotional punch and Kiko’s journey is one that I think many readers will relate to on some level, whether it’s the feeling like you don’t belong, feeling like you’re not good enough, or dealing with a less than ideal home life. For this reason and because the writing and storytelling is top notch, I fully expect to see Starfish on many ‘Best of’ 2017 lists before the end of the year.
Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin.
But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.