Novel about a child prodigy all grown up
Content warning: sexual themes
This book was released this year, and I had seen it mentioned a few times on social media, so when I came across it while scrolling for my next audiobook, I thought I would give this one a go.
“A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing” by Jessie Tu and narrated by Aileen Huynh is a novel about a violinist called Jena who once was famous as a child prodigy. Now in her early 20s, her life in Sydney is consumed with rehearsals, auditions and hookups. As her ambition for music reignites, Jena is forced to confront what happened to make her career come crashing down in her late teens. For Jena, the violin is everything, but it is not enough to keep the deepest feelings of loneliness at bay. As her liaisons grow more and more complicated, Jena struggles to balance her dreams, her friendships and her lovers.
This is compelling book that attempts to answer a question I have certainly found myself wondering from time to time: what happens to child prodigies when they grow up? Through Jena, Tu explores the ways in which talent, work ethic and family support each influenced Jena’s success and downfall. Tu also examines how the lack of meaningful emotional connection as a child has impacted Jena’s relationships as an adult, resulting in messy, overlapping friendships and casual sex. Although Jena seems to yearn for close friendships, she also can’t seem to avoid self-destruction and choosing the gratification of feeling wanted in a fleeting sexual encounter over friends. However Tu challenges the reader to consider whether the standard by which we judge Jena’s behaviour would be equally applied to the men she sleeps with. Tu also explores the sexism in classical music: in the music written, the music selected and the people who gatekeep it.
I thought that the narrative decision of sending Jena to New York to confront her demons and the limitations of her talent was very clever, and it was this part of the book where Jena undergoes the most introspection about her past and the possibilities for her future. I also liked how Tu explores themes of race, countering stereotypes in a subversive way and subtly comparing Jena’s experience as Asian in Australia with her experience in New York. Despite her perfectionist approach to music, Jena’s personal life is largely an unmitigated disaster and she is often selfish and blunt, making a litany of poor decisions. Her ruthless ambition and frank descriptions of her sexual encounters are a far cry from the stereotype of Asian women as meek and unassuming. Huynh narrates the story with a flat, deadpan style that initially I found a little disconcerting but quickly warmed to. I felt that it actually captured Jena’s way of viewing the world well, and helped to translate Jena’s lack of emotional connection into the lived experience of loneliness.
I think that the part of the book that I found the hardest to reconcile was Jena’s affair with Mark, an older wealthy white man who is in a relationship with another woman. Tu leans uncomfortably into the cliche of seeking validation from sleeping with an unavailable man, and we have to watch Jena overlook Mark’s racist and sexist comments, and increasingly violent, dominating behaviour in bed. Conversely, a character that I really would have liked to have seen more of was an artist Jena meets called Val. There were a few points in the book where I thought that Tu might be hinting that Jena’s desire to be Val’s friend might translate into the intimacy she had been unable to find elsewhere, but unfortunately Val remained a relatively minor character.
There is plenty more I could go into, especially about motherhood, but I’ll wrap it up to say that this was a raw, challenging and fresh book that left me with plenty to think about.