Review: Laurinda by Alice Pung

Laurinda is an exclusive school for girls. At its secret core is the Cabinet, a trio of girls who wield power over their classmates – and some of their teachers.

Entering this world of wealth and secrets is Lucy Lam, a scholarship girl with sharp eyes and a shaky sense of self. As she watches the Cabinet at work, and is courted by them, Lucy finds herself in a battle for her identity and integrity.

Funny, feisty and moving, Laurinda explores Lucy’s struggle to stay true to herself as she finds her way in a new world of privilege and opportunity. — [X]

I have so many notes on this novel that had my copy been a physical one, it would have been twice the size it was at purchase. Pung’s writing is so deliberate and smart that every other line deserves to be highlighted, underlined, discussed, or maybe even cross-stitched onto a pillow. I guess I’m not going to wait till the last line of this review to say that I loved it and that I definitely recommend it. I will, however, spend the rest of the review trying to tell you why I love Laurinda so much.

For one thing, I think it’s being re-released by Knopf under a different name:

Lucy And Linh by Alice Pung

So, I’m going to take that as a sign that I’m not alone in marvelling over the brilliance of this novel. I definitely feel like it deserves more love and maybe Knopf will make that happen.

What do you guys feel about the different covers and titles? Having read the book, I think I prefer the first cover, but I may actually prefer Lucy and Linh as a title. Laurindathe posh, private school setting where Lucy’s coming-of-age story unfolds–is a perfectly nice title, but Lucy’s story is as much about Laurinda as it is about her old school in Stanley. It is also an epistolary novel and each chapter begins as a letter from Lucy to her public school friend Linh. Each chapter reminds us that Lucy, the “inaugural Equal Access” scholarship student at Laurinda, is struggling between her past and her present, how she feels she is between identities, and how she no longer feels a part of her old life and can’t really belong in her new one.

In a lot of ways, this is the private school story I have been waiting for all my life. It doesn’t mirror my own schooling experience in any way, but reading it was still a (strangely) healing experience. Through the setting of school and the institution of friendship, Pung has managed to write eloquently and evocatively about systemic oppression, internalized racism, and plain old bullying. It is about Lucy who desperately wants to fit in, wants the future her parents want for her, but also wants to be the best version of herself–someone she is not sure she can be at a place like Laurinda.

I cannot stress how effectively Laurinda reveals structures that other people work at a school-level, where it is learned and reinforced by young people. The “systemic” part of the oppression comes through so clearly in this novel that is, seemingly, a novelization of Mean Girls featuring the daughter of ethnically Chinese, Vietnamese immigrants in Australia. And I love Mean Girls, but honestly, Rosalind Wiseman and Tina Fey wish they could write as well as Alice Pung. Yes, them’s fighting words and I am ready to meet you wherever, whenever to settle our difference in opinion. I’ll be the one holding a defaced copy of Laurinda to prove my points.

I think the book’s one flaw is that–like the one other book I read for this month’s theme *shame face*–it is pretty heteronormative. I wished it had done better on that front. Especially since the only schools Lucy had ever attended were all-girl schools–you’d think there would be some awareness about girls who prefer dating girls? But I guess this was the early 2000s and depended on the community you’re from, sexuality and sexual orientation is something you never talk about; it certainly was the case for me.

Speaking of the time this was set in, can I just say, how absolutely refreshing and awesome it was to see mention of The Backstreet Boys and no mention of The Smiths? Can I just say: accurate! My very favourite moment involves a boy who woos a girl by singing “Quit Playin’ Games (With My Heart)” in perfect Maltese? It just sounds like something that would have happened at my school and it made me grin for a full ten minutes. Honestly, if the rest of the review doesn’t convince you, maybe you’ll pick it up for this completely perfect moment.

Anyway, as I said at the start: highly recommended!

*PS: This isn’t a flaw exactly, but I learned from Laurinda that there is (was?) a candy from Nestlé called “Redsk**s”?! I mean, why??!


11 responses to “Review: Laurinda by Alice Pung

  1. YES!!! Oh my god, the Backstreet Boys references just made my day. I went to a Catholic all-girls school, and suffice it to say sexuality was only discussed in very specific, church-approved ways…

    OH and that reminds me – as part of the “challenges” my best friend’s fiance had to do as part of their Chinese wedding traditions, he and his groomsmen had to serenade us with BSB songs. :D

    • Ahahaha! Omg, we need to talk more about your Catholic school days when we meet again*. Also, I forgot to say in the review, the boy who was doing the singing had a little posse to help him out! And he was Vietnamese, so Maltese was, like, his second or third language! All kinds of brilliance in that scene! :)
      *Oh yeah, I can meet on Monday, the 29th! You?

      • YAY more writing!! I bet my all-girl school stories can trump your all-girl school stories – my first principal there was a nun, and the second was a monk, beat that! ;D
        Monday works for me! Wow, at this rate I might actually finish another story….! :D

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