Willa Chen, the narrator of Kyle Lucia Wu's novel “Win Me Something” is an unlikely nanny. The 24-year-old Brooklynite, by her own admission, doesn't even like children; she's spent her early adulthood working in bars and coffee shops. But she longs for a job "where I didn't have to talk to ninety people per shift who all said the same things. I wanted to stop forcing myself to laugh. I wanted peace."
When she's hired by a wealthy Manhattan couple as a nanny, she doesn't quite find peace, but she does find something else — a glimpse at a life that's foreign, yet familiar to her, a chance to experience something like a sense of family, one that she never really had. Wu's novel, her first, tells Willa's story with subtlety and compassion; it's a literary debut that's beyond impressive.
Willa doesn't know quite what to expect when she starts working for Nathalie and Gabe Adrien as the caretaker of their 9-year-old daughter, Bijou. "I didn't know what it looked like to take care of someone," she admits — her own childhood wasn't traumatic, exactly, but she was "undercared for," spending most of her life with her white mother in New Jersey, occasionally shuttling to the Hudson Valley, where her Chinese American father and his new family live.
Whatever preconceptions Willa has about children disappear when she meets Bijou. An aspiring chef, despite her young age, Bijou prefers langoustines and duck liver over macaroni and cheese and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. The girl learns yoga at her school, where P.E. is called "cooperative teamwork time." It's a big contrast to Willa's middle-class upbringing, but the two become close despite their differences.
Willa finds herself a little intimidated by Gabe, a doctor, and especially Nathalie, who works in finance: "Around her, I felt like a sixth grader in the home of the senior prom queen, finally invited into her lair." Nathalie gives Willa her cast-off clothes, a gesture Willa is unsure how to interpret.
The Adriens eventually ask Willa to become a live-in nanny, and Willa accepts; while her relationship with the couple is cordial, she never quite feels as if she's part of the family. Part of this is the obvious class difference; another part is the racial microaggressions that she endures at the hands of Nathalie's siblings: in one uncomfortable scene, Nathalie's sister asks Willa to bring her tea, "a Japanese kind, preferably? I'm sure you know best."
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Incidents like this rankle Willa, understandably, but she's reluctant to call them out: "Nathalie and Gabe weren't perfect, but any prejudices of theirs were neatly tucked away, in a place I didn't have to see; [Nathalie's siblings], they were different. And yet everything ended with me feeling like the discomfort was my fault. If I made too big a deal about it, if I acted upset." The result is a resentment she's not quite sure how to live with.
And that kind of unsureness is at the heart of “Win Me Something.” Wu perfectly captures the feeling of being young and unmoored in a large city, unable to find close friends ("I have trouble finding the right people, I think," she tells Nathalie's brother), and still carrying a dull pain from a childhood that was neither really happy nor unhappy.
Wu intersperses scenes from Willa's adulthood with ones from her past, and the flashbacks are masterfully done, depicting the alienation that's haunted Willa for her entire life. She recalls being taunted as a child by a classmate who asked her if she bathed in soy sauce, "and since that day, I'd made sure to eat the plainest food available." In a contrasting scene, her father takes her to dinner at a Japanese restaurant — just the two of them, a rare treat for her — and the two get a chance to connect, one that Willa knows might not happen again.
Willa is a compelling character, conflicted and rootless, but so is young Bijou, who Willa senses is dealing with disappointments of her own, being left with a nanny when she wants nothing more than time with her parents. Bijou, like Willa, is sweet and sensitive; in one scene, the girl feels betrayed after a salmon sandwich gives her and Willa food poisoning. "I think they should know that they hurt us," she tells Willa, plaintively. In one line of dialogue, Wu conjures up a world of heartbreak, the sadness of a young person whose trust has been broken.
“Win Me Something” is filled with moments like that, quiet moments that pack a devastating emotional punch. The novel is perfectly structured; it's clear that Wu has thought carefully about each sentence. It's a book that's filled with seemingly small moments that are actually anything but — Wu understands the human heart keenly, and her novel is a subtle but powerful triumph.
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