Heat Factor: There’s a closed door scene that I’m not totally sure added anything
Character Chemistry: If not getting along most of the time is your love language then yes, there’s chemistry
Plot: Jasmine is in her early 20s and her life’s a mess
Overall: Women’s fiction marketed as romance strikes again!
If you are not prepared to read a story about a very (very!) young woman who is struggling to figure herself out, then you should give this book a pass. If I’m being totally honest, these protagonists were too young for me (I read Jasmine as even younger than 23ish), and I think I’m at a point where I need to really selectively read single POV stories. Do I really want to focus on this one person’s growth journey?
I will say, however, that in terms of Jasmine’s characterization, Tieu is beat for beat spot on in representing Jasmine’s struggles as a recent college grad without a plan post-graduation. My experience feels worthless; how is my resume possibly going to stand out from all the other graduates just like me? I’m not qualified for anything; how can I possibly get my foot in the door? All my old friends seem to be succeeding and I’m just stagnating; why would I even put myself out there to talk to them? It’s a success/happiness mentality that—now that I’m not in my early 20s anymore—I absolutely hate, but that I can remember feeling myself and that I remember watching when I was older but supervising recent college graduates doing entry-level work. It’s very difficult to stop comparing ourselves and our successes to what’s outwardly visible from others’. So there are many, many aspects of this story that resonate beautifully. Or they’re not particularly comfortable so maybe more like…resonantly.
There’s a lot I want to say about this book, so if you’re not interested in buckling up for the whole ride, here’s the summary before the final summary: This is the story of a young woman born to refugee parents who is struggling under the weight of her parents’ and society’s expectations. The romance is secondary, and I did not find it particularly satisfying or uplifting. This book is best suited to readers who like a heroine’s journey with some romantic elements.
Now I’d like to talk about some components of the book that make it interesting and are…not my fave.
Respect for Work
The notion of respect for elders is a constant thread. First, it’s a cultural thing. Jasmine, the Chinese-Cambodian-American child of Chinese-Cambodian refugee parents, has been taught that certain behaviors and ways of communicating are appropriate her whole life. But also, it’s an excuse Jasmine uses when she’s struggling to find her own way. In fact, I’m not sure that Jasmine respects her parents at all. Setting aside the fact that she constantly lies to them for later, she repeatedly says that she’s working at her parents’ doughnut shop while looking for “a real job,” which diminishes her parents’ achievement of running their own business for decades after coming to the US as refugees with basically no personal belongings or capital and in this case also without any higher education. That is an accomplishment, and it’s not lesser than being a lawyer. Everyone’s expectation is that Jasmine and her brother will go to college and get suitable jobs that provide life security. This is neither surprising nor unreasonable. Jasmine doesn’t want to run a doughnut shop, and she shouldn’t have to. That said, even after she does finally get a new job, she still talks as if working at her parents’ shop isn’t respectable, thinking when she tells her boyfriend’s grandma where she works: “I was happy to have a decent answer to this question now.”
And while I’m on the subject of work… Jasmine and her family work ridiculously long hours at the doughnut shop, so their work-life balance is not great. Her parents do this so that they don’t have to pay any other employees—their choice to work such long hours is an attempt to ensure that their business is profitable for the security of their family: their primary goal. When Jasmine got her new job, I hoped that she would figure out a more positive work-life balance, but she just dives even deeper into the time sink rat race, glued to her phone constantly and at all hours (she’s responsible for her company’s social media), and is proud of herself for doing so. Again, this is a mentality that I absolutely abhor, and I really don’t think it should be glorified.
In case I haven’t already established this, Jasmine is a mess at the beginning of the book. She has almost no personal life, partly because she spends so much time working and partly because she’s in the mental sinkhole of “my old friends are all succeeding and I’m not so I’m just going to avoid everyone now because I’m valueless.” Enter Alex, a guy she met once in college and had a crush on and who is now the roommate of her best friend’s boyfriend. Alex really wants to date Jasmine for his own reasons that shall remain a mystery. He and Jasmine spend most of their relationship with Jasmine either mad at him or teasing him in ways I did not enjoy. I found it interesting (and good!) that Jasmine has boundaries with Alex that she’s unable to create elsewhere in her life. She’s pretty clear that she values herself and isn’t willing to put up with any BS from any guy.
That said, she’s got some behaviors that personally rub me the wrong way. For example, at one point she pushes Alex and then doesn’t think, “maybe this is a behavior I should change.”
I shoved his shoulder before I could stop myself.
“Ow!” Alex yelped.
“Sorry. It’s a bad habit,” I said, smiling weakly at my explanation. Pat and Linh have grown accustomed to my hitting over the years. Nowadays, they anticipate getting hit and manage to dodge my hands half the time.
Oh, okay, that’s fine then. /sarcasm
Beyond that, she’s really snarky, and while I can get behind a little bickering banter, I didn’t get the sense that she was being playful in a kind or thoughtful way. She teases Alex about liking Taylor Swift and for wearing glasses, etc., but with no indicators that she also thought it was cute on his part. I don’t understand why he would find that attractive at all. At one point, when she’s talking to her brother, she says something really mean to him and then…nothing.
“Why would anyone want to hire you for that? You don’t know shit,” I snorted.
Irritated, Pat stopped directly in front of me across the front counter. “Thanks, jie.”
The caustic tone in Pat’s voice caught me off guard. This was our normal repartee. Sure, I was giving him a hard time, but a verbal elbow to the ribs was how we showed each other that we cared. He knew I was joking, didn’t he?
She talks like this all the time—but only with people she doesn’t feel inferior to—and she doesn’t grow out of it.
Okay, but let’s talk about the juxtaposition of her ex-boyfriend and Alex. In high school, Jasmine secretly dated a boy who wasn’t Asian. She knew her parents wouldn’t approve, so she kept it a secret, and she lied. (This is also something she hasn’t learned not to do, BTW. This woman lies all the freaking time.) Fast forward. Alex is at her parents’ house for dinner and his mom shows up, too. Jasmine finds out that he embellished her life so it would sound better to his mom and she feels terrible that he doesn’t think she’s good enough.
Me: This girl better figure out that she pulled this shit on her ex or I’m gonna be pissed.
Eventually Jasmine does realize how much her actions hurt her ex, because she’s hurting. Unlike her, Alex immediately acknowledges he’s at fault and explains his complicated relationship with his mom, and while I appreciated Jasmine’s fierce demand for respect, I didn’t appreciate that she couldn’t see Alex’s point of view—since she did maybe worse than Alex by simply refusing to acknowledge the existence of her ex at all—and that she seemed to think that she was owed serious and extensive grovelling. She did deserve a heartfelt apology for sure. But she doesn’t think of apologizing to her ex (who is still in the picture in a larger high school friend group). (She does eventually apologize, but it’s overshadowed by a bunch of other BS in that relationship so…also unsatisfying.)
FURTHERMORE after this dinner, Jasmine’s mom demands that Jasmine stop seeing Alex because “You can’t marry that boy. Can you imagine that woman as your mother-in-law?” and “Why spend any more time with him? He can’t stand up to his own mother!” So what does Jasmine do? She starts lying about seeing Alex. It’s like she has learned nothing. The most killer component of this for me was that her mother is ruling out Alex because he can’t stand up to his mother, when Jasmine has categorically refused to set any boundaries with her own parents. Later in the story, when I’m busy wondering why these two think working on this relationship is even worth their time anymore, Alex and Jasmine argue about Alex lying to his mom about her and he says that she should understand because she lies, too. So what does Jasmine do? She says (with righteous anger),
“That’s not the same thing.” I shook my head and threw my purse over my shoulder. “I do it to have a life . . . to . . . to be more of who I am. Not to pretend that I’m something I’m not.”
But, Jasmine, if you’re lying because you can’t tell your truth, then you are pretending to be someone you’re not. Does she ever get there? She does not.
At the end of the day, I’m expecting a dynamic growth arc, either for the POV protagonist or (preferably) for the romance. While Jasmine does manage to find a job she likes and her family finds out all her lies (no, she does not come clean or learn to assert herself, she is caught), allowing her to start with a cleaner slate at home, Jasmine doesn’t really experience any significant personal growth. With the exception of her high school boyfriend, I’m not sure she felt like she made any mistakes or thought about how she could do things differently in the future.
From a romance standpoint, Jasmine doesn’t even seem to like Alex for most of their relationship, they’re rarely together, and their romantic journey is extremely one-sided, with Alex spending most of his time groveling. Props to Jasmine for taking no shit, but also, if she’s taking no shit, why is she so hell-bent on being with this guy? I don’t get it. This romance was not particularly romantic or at all satisfying.
For most of this book, I simply didn’t think that Jasmine was in a place where she should have a romance novel relationship. Even if it’s left as HFN, most of the time the genre expectation is that it could reasonably be a forever love, and at 22 or 23 and with her view of herself, the way she treats others, and her inability to express herself or set healthy boundaries, I just didn’t feel like Jasmine was ready for that.
I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.
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3 thoughts on “Review: The Donut Trap by Julie Tieu (2021)”
ok the gifs in this review are priceless 😂
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Lol thank you! I do love a well placed gif
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