Book review: 'Sarong Party Girls' by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

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“We don’t have any more time to waste!  We are not young anymore, you know – Fann just turned twenty-seven, my twenty-seventh birthday is two months away and Imo’s is not far behind.  If we don’t get married, engaged or even nail down a boyfriend soon – my god, we might as well go ahead and book a room at Singapore Casket because our lives would already be over.  In many ways, in Singapore, our kind of age is already considered a bit left on the shelf.”

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Jazzy’s not the kind of girl to panic, but even she has to admit that her life is not going according to plan. Sure, she’s got a pretty good job at Singapore’s most popular newspaper and knows she is still “pretty-happening,” but she really thought she’d be married by now. So the street smart and spunky Jazzy hatches a plan: by the end of the year, she and her best friends will have ang-moh husbands, wealthy Western ex-pats who can give them biracial “Chanel babies,” Singapore’s ultimate status symbol.

The only way Jazzy knows how to go about meeting these ang-mohs is by hitting the club scene hard. On a quest for the most suitable match, Jazzy and her friends find themselves mixing with men from all walks of life and, ultimately, questioning just what it is they think they want: status or happiness.

When I first heard about this book through a fellow blogger, she pitched it to me as Jane Austen’s Emma set in the modern Singaporean club scene. Now that I’ve read it, I don’t think I could describe it any better myself. While this is set a world away from regency England – and features a whole lot more casual sex! – Jazzy and her friends also find themselves in a world where a woman’s real success is defined by the clothes that she wears, the circles she walks in, and the man that she marries.

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In Sarong Party Girls, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan has created a story that works on so many different levels. If you’re looking for a fun novel set in the colorful world of modern Singapore, look no further. Written in fiery Singlish, Jazzy’s narrative voice is casual and personal, as if the reader is a girlfriend with whom she is sharing the gossip about the crazy events of last night. The Singaporean nightlife is described so vividly that the city seems to come to life on the page.

And yet Sarong Party Girls is ultimately a story about clashing cultures and ways of life: traditional versus modern, wealthy versus working class, old versus new, ang-mohs versus ah bengs.

And at the heart of it all is Jazzy, a woman who is as compelling as she is frustrating and materialistic. On one hand, the reader seems doomed to watch Jazzy repeat the same mistakes over and over again, whether she is putting herself in bad situations with questionable men or isolating her longtime friends. On the other hand, Jazzy has moments of tender vulnerability that highlight her inner conflict. All she really wants is a life different from her parents’, to move up in the world the only way she knows how.

“What did she expect?  What did she want beyond all this?  Life in Singapore is just like that, after all – if you want to meet anyone good, you just have to do the bar scene.  I don’t care how tired you are, you still must just go out there and chong.  Otherwise – do what?”

Underneath all her sass and hustle, Jazzy really is tired. Tired of clubbing, tired of fighting with her mom, tired of being alone. She sees her parents’ lives and her friends’ lives and she wants something different, something better. But as her search for something better takes her further and further away from happiness, you really see Jazzy start to question herself and what it is she really wants. That, I think, is something every woman can relate to.

All in all, Sarong Party Girls defied all my expectations. It’s not the kind of novel I would normally pick up and I am so very glad I did. Tan’s novel is the perfect reflection of its main character: simple fun on the surface and surprisingly deep and moving within.

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About the Author: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Born and raised in Singapore, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan first came to the United States at the age of 18 to attend Northwestern University. She is currently a journalist based in New York and debuted on the literary scene in 2011 with her memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food & Family. Sarong Party Girls is Tan’s first novel.

Marisa Jue
Marisa is a book-tuber, book reviewer, and serious book lover in Southern California, U.S. She majored in English Literature at the University of San Francisco and have been sharing her love of books through her YouTube channel, littlespider9, since 2013.

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