Review: The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

 

I first learned of this book and author in a North Idaho College English Club meeting. We were told that 'The Girl Who Wrote in Silk' by Kelli Estes had been selected for North Idaho Reads book for 2018. Even better: Kelli Estes is a regional writer who lives near Seattle, Washington!

The City of Coeur d'Alene posted this article about the selection.

My connection with the story

I spent a few years of my childhood growing up near Seattle--in Mukilteo and Everett. I've ridden in my father's boat along the Puget Sound and seen the seals and forests that Kelli described. I have a fond memory of a seal lounging on a buoy and barking at my father, and my father--never a man to back down from anything--barked back at the seal until it cowed away and jumped back into the water. I can't say with any certainty if that is a memory or a daydream.

I have an interest with Asian culture in general, and my college experience (so far!) has helped me to explore our own American history and culture of racism. A long, long time ago I had a long-distance relationship with a Chinese-American boy in New York City and I experienced first-hand the difficulties of clashing cultures and traditions. I knew some of the slang used in the first few chapters and for that reason: the story and book was all the more authentic for me. 

What I enjoyed

I listened to the Audible audio book of this story and have no complaints about the reader's voice. I generally listen at 1.10x speed but another listener suggested even as high as 1.30x did not distort the voice beyond understanding.

I really enjoyed 'The Girl Who Wrote in Silk.'

I did not know the premise of the book before reading it; I certainly did not expect the jumping back and forth between time or the parallels the characters would face across the book. What I enjoyed most was the way that the modern day setting with Inara and Daniel revealed the story of  Mei Lein and Joseph before I experienced it for myself. First, Inara and Daniel would make an important discovery--that Inara had a child!--then the next few chapters would show it progressing. I appreciated that I didn't have to fear that either mother or child wouldn't survive childbirth. It was an interesting way of writing the story (as compared to backwards, where we'd experience the past and then they'd learn about it in the future setting).

Some of my favorite scenes included the description of the silk embroidery. I know nothing about embroidery but Kelli described it in such a way that I could see it! While I didn't expect the story to have a romantic subplot: it was also handled in a believable and honest way. As a college student myself: I could relate to the classroom full of girls waiting for Daniel Chin--and I certainly laughed.

Some of the more uncomfortable scenes for me included the description of childbirth (that's a personal bias, not meant to discourage anyone from reading!) and the embarrassment and heartache of watching a character be disrespected on the page. Even while it made me uncomfortable (as it should have!), it made me angry for the way Mei Lien was treated, and for all minorities during that time in America. I felt upset, and sad, and drawn to the story in a powerful way. 

It's the kind of story that, when it ends, makes you want to immediately jump in a car with your friends and drive to Seattle to find Inara and Daniel and the restaurant. You want to see that glass case with the robe and sleeve inside, lit up and real.

My own personal biases

The catches in the story for me--was the incredible amount of perceived 'wealth' that Inara and Daniel's family both came from. Inara's father was a prominent business man, owner of an international corporation with money to burn; Daniel was a professor at a college, his mother was a restaurant owner and even Inara herself had at least one college degree and turned down a promising job at Starbucks. It made me, as a lowly college student, feel very self-conscious about my own dwindling life choices. I have to find a way to frame it for me: is this just a different reality in the Seattle area, or is my life so much less than the characters in the book? Did anyone else feel a bit smaller after having read it?

why i recommend it

If you're listening to the audio book: it's a 12 hour commitment. The story itself has an unconventional structure (at least, to me, primarily as a reader of linear Science Fiction and Fantasy) that goes back and forth in time (from present day to late 1800's Seattle). It explores concepts of racism, culture, love and forgiveness. The book focuses a lot on grief and the loss of family. There are some hard decisions and realities to face, and I certainly cried alongside some of them.

Whether you're familiar with the Seattle area or not: the descriptions of the land are quite lovely.

Follow-Up Material

Kelli has a Reading Guide for Book Clubs available on her website to help you start important discussions!

Author Talk with Kelli Estes

Kelle Estes visited the Coeur d'Alene Library on April 20th, 2018 to talk about her book. I took a (very) poor recording of her visit and have provided it here:

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She talked about the history that inspired her book, her research, and how she was finally inspired to become an author. As someone waiting to be validated as an author myself (not neccessary, but there it is) I really connected with Kelli's sense of turmoil and fear. It was fun to learn that the way the book was written--with events being announced by Inara and Daniel, and then happening--was at the recommendation of her publisher. Or that the original title of the work was something like The Silk Sleeve. There's so many details that are missed when you don't get to experience a conversation like this from the author.

After her talk--she sat behind a small fold-up table and signed copies of her book. We bought a copy, paid through Square, and she took a moment for Mason and I to introduce ourselves. She signed our copy and put a sticker on the front cover.