A copy of Fiona and Jane is held on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022 near Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Off the Shelf: “Fiona and Jane” a moving tale of female friendships and the Asian American experience

Off the Shelf is a bimonthly literature column written by the staff of The Peninsula Clarion.

There’s something really special about female friendships. There’s something even more special about finding stories in which they’re accurately depicted. In the wake of a Galentine’s Day celebration that brought me together with some of my closest friends — all charismatic, confident women — the exchange of uniquely femme experiences laid bare the value in women gathering to share stories with one another.

“Fiona and Jane” is the debut novel of author Jean Chen Ho and was released earlier this year. Across 10 vignettes, it tells the story of two young Taiwanese women from alternating perspectives over the course of 20 years. Ho herself was born in Taiwan, but was raised and now lives in Los Angeles — the setting of “Fiona and Jane.”

The specificity with which Ho describes Southern California results in a tender tableau that one knows can only come from Ho’s own memories and experiences about the landscape. That familiarity adds a layer of realism over a fictional story. Maybe Jane and Fiona aren’t real people, but it feels like they could be.

As incidents of discrimination and violence against Asian Americans rise around the United States, stories like those told in “Fiona and Jane” are valuable and necessary contributions to a shared understanding of the Asian American experience, as is the amplification of the voices of Asian creators.

In one vignette, the character of Fiona recalls how she changed her name from “Ona” to “Fiona” after a boy in her class said that “Ona” wasn’t a real name.

“She was new, and the boy spoke with authority, so she’d believed him,” Ho writes. “She needed a new name. A proper American name. In the back of the dictionary, her mother found a list of girl’s names. They landed on Fiona, adding a syllable in front of the name she already had. If she said it fast, ‘Fiona’ sounded like the Mandarin word for ‘wind.’”

Descriptions of similar microaggressions are peppered throughout the book’s other vignettes, which span across two decades, as is a tangible feeling of loyalty of one character to another. Even as Jane and Fiona grow apart, their shared experiences bind them together.

The use of discrete stories to create a long-form narrative is done masterfully by Ho, who successfully creates for readers a feeling that they are watching a montage of the most important moments in two women’s lives. Use of alternating points of view gives readers both the inside and outside perspective into both characters, yet leaves them with a feeling of not knowing either Fiona or Jane as well as they do each other.

The same force and shared memory that keep Fiona and Jane in each other’s orbit throughout their lives is underscored by their shared experiences as women and as Asian Americans. “Fiona and Jane” is honest and real in a way that will resonate with readers who have similar connections.

“Fiona and Jane” was published on Jan. 4, 2022, by Viking Press, owned by Penguin Random House. More information about “Fiona and Jane” and author Jean Chen Ho can be found at jean-chen-ho.com.

Ashlyn O’Hara can be reached at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

Off the Shelf is a bimonthly literature column written by the staff of The Peninsula Clarion that features reviews and recommendations of books and other texts through a contemporary lens.

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