In ‘Win Me Something,’ an Unmoored 20-Something Waits for Her Life to Begin in New York City
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Willa Chen doesn’t like children all that much. But when she’s given the opportunity to nanny for the Adriens, a wealthy family in Tribeca, she jumps at the chance. She could use the money, sure, but she’s most drawn to the fact that the Adriens seem to be everything her family isn’t.

This sense of belonging is at the center of Win Me Something, a poignant debut novel by Joyland editor Kyle Lucia Wu.

Growing up in New Jersey as a biracial Chinese American girl, Willa felt hyper-visible and unseen at the same time. Her parents divorced when she was young, and both her mother and father had more children with subsequent partners. It wasn’t that Willa was abused or neglected, but she never experienced an abundance or love or support. “If you’re undercared for, but essentially fine, what do you do with all that hurt, the kind that runs through your tendons and tugs on your muscles, but doesn’t show up on your skin?” she wonders.

Living in New York City after college around 2014, Willa is unmoored. “It seemed like I often sat still while the pieces of my life rearranged around me, my only job to be stoic and unmoved, to come up for air and readjust once they stopped shifting,” she muses. While working as a waitress in Brooklyn, she gets the opportunity to nanny for Bijou, a wise-beyond-her-years 9-year-old whose parents, Nathalie and Gabe, work high powered jobs in finance and medicine, respectively.  

Nathalie and Gabe are cordial to Willa, but she remains intimidated by them (of Nathalie, Willa notes, “Around her, I felt like a sixth grader in the home of the senior prom queen, finally invited into her lair.”). Conversely, she clicks immediately with the precocious Bijou, who dreams of becoming a chef when she grows up and is an absolute highlight of the novel.

Willa hopes that by accepting this job she’ll be able to experience what it feels like to belong, but much to her chagrin, that feeling never quite manifests. Though she doesn’t face racism as overt as it was in grade school (when a fellow student asked if she bathed in soy sauce), she frequently experiences microaggressions at the hands of the well-to-do white people around her. (Nathalie is surprised, for example, that Willa doesn’t know how to speak Mandarin, or seek to be “more in touch with her culture.”) She’s also disillusioned. She sees that despite being ultra-privileged and set up for a life of success, Bijou is missing the one thing she truly wants: time with her parents.

Understated yet powerful, Win Me Something is about that familiar struggle of waiting for one’s life to begin, then suddenly suspecting it already has.

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