Lyn Liao Butler knows what it’s like to experience conflicting cultures, so the different cultures she depicts in “The Tiger Mom’s Tale” ring true. Butler’s Instagram videos of her parents demonstrating cooking traditional Taiwanese dishes show that while she lives in America, fosters dogs, has a child, and lives the American dream, her roots (her parents) are from Taiwan. Main character Lexa’s roots are American, like her mother’s. But there is also the part of her that is Taiwanese, like the father she didn’t meet until she was eight. And until a traumatic event happened in Taiwan when Lexa was fourteen, she thought that she could straddle both cultures and be lucky enough to be loved by both her American family and her Taiwanese family. We find out that’s not always as easy as one might imagine.
Lexa first visited her father in Taiwan when she was eight, and she got to meet her half-sister, whose mother hated Lexa immensely. Hsu-Ling, her younger Taiwanese sister, was missing part of one leg, and her mother, Pin-Yen was overly protective and defensive on her daughter’s behalf. Pin-Yen is the “Tiger Mom” referenced in the title. And while Lexa had gotten along wonderfully with her Taiwanese family — her father, her younger sister, her grandmother, the aunts and uncles, and the honorary uncle Pong, her father’s best friend — her stepmother had continued to hate her until the final horrible act that is a complete betrayal of Lexa. Lexa returns to the US and doesn’t return to Taiwan.
Butler tells the story gradually, alternating from present day to over a quarter-century earlier in Taiwan. Most of the story is from Lexa’s point of view, but there are other characters whose points of view we read which help us understand the different characters’ feelings and motivations. We see Lexa in the present, as a successful personal trainer who knows martial arts, but who has been less successful in her personal life. She seems afraid of commitment and doesn’t want children. Her mother has just left her adopted father for another woman, and her sister Maddie is on the verge of divorce from her husband. Life is unsettled, and there is a new man in Lexa’s life who could be the perfect man — if only Lexa wanted to settle down and wanted a family.
We know from the beginning of the story that there is something Lexa is hiding; this terrible thing that happened when she visited Taiwan when she was fourteen. We don’t know what it is, but we know that Lexa is so ashamed of it that she didn’t share it with her adopted father, Greg, or her sister Maddie. And they knew that there was something Lexa and her mother were hiding. As we learn, they have felt excluded to some extent by that knowledge and were hurt that there was something that clearly affected Lexa deeply, but which she would not share with them.
When Lexa learns that her father has died, and she learns the unusual circumstances of his death, she also learns that his best friend, Pong, has died. We find out those deaths are entangled, and we learn what each man left Lexa in his will. One’s bequest was out of love and guilt, the other’s simply out of terrible guilt. Lexa’s Taiwanese sister comes to New York to visit Lexa, and they talk about the event that drove Lexa away. Lexa must decide if she is willing to return to Taiwan to save Hsu-Ling’s and her father’s family or whether she wants to refuse to help them because they did nothing to help her when she was young and helpless.
Butler creates characters who ring true and a situation that we can imagine, including a mother who is so insecure and so filled with envy that she is willing to do almost anything to ensure that her daughter comes out on top. And Lexa is a very relatable main character whose insecurities we can sympathize with and whose strengths we admire. How we react during times of adversity and change often define who we are, and Lexa shows us that she’s someone to be reckoned with. Reading her story and watching her gradual change, getting stronger emotionally while at the same time learning to forgive, is a satisfying event. I can’t wait to read Butler’s next novel. And in the meantime, I’ll definitely keep watching her very entertaining @lynliaobutler Instagram posts. She’s a riot!
Please note: This review is based on the final book provided by Berkley, the publisher, for review purposes.