Dear Girls is about the messy parts of
Ali Wong’s heartfelt and hilarious letters to her daughters (the two she put to work while they were still in utero), covering everything they need to know in life, like the unpleasant details of dating, how to be a working mom in a male-dominated profession, and how she trapped their dad.
In her hit Netflix comedy special Baby Cobra, an eight-month pregnant Ali Wong resonated so heavily that she became a popular Halloween costume. Wong told the world her remarkably unfiltered thoughts on marriage, sex, Asian culture, working women, and why you never see new mom comics on stage but you sure see plenty of new dads.
The sharp insights and humor are even more personal in this completely original collection. She shares the wisdom she’s learned from a life in comedy and reveals stories from her life off stage, including the brutal singles life in New York (i.e. the inevitable confrontation with erectile dysfunction), reconnecting with her roots (and drinking snake blood) in Vietnam, tales of being a wild child growing up in San Francisco, and parenting war stories. Though addressed to her daughters, Ali Wong’s letters are absurdly funny, surprisingly moving, and enlightening (and disgusting) for all.
Two things: First, do not read this book until you are over twenty-one. You should not be allowed to know these inappropriate things about me if you can’t even buy beer yet. Second, if you have any questions after reading this book, you can always as
kme, because I’m your mother and I plan on living until I’m two hundred. Also, because I’m your mother, most of this book will probably horrify you and you won’t want to ask me about it. That might be a catch-22, I’m not googling it.”
A rough start, a great middle, and a frustrating end.
The first chapters of Dear Girls don’t inspire confidence.
Ali Wong spends a lot of time emphasizing that she’s an “idiot” and entirely unqualified to write a book. It’s a little funny (who doesn’t like anecdotes about famous people googling obvious things?) but mostly, frustrating. Instead of coming across as good-humored self-deprecation, it comes across to me as an excuse. Don’t expect too much, Wong seems to say. If this book is terrible, it’s not my fault, I’m just too hilariously stupid. It’s a joke, but it’s also not.
The book needed a little work. Some refocusing and restructuring would have gone a long way. But I can look past a lot of that… this is a celebrity humor/memoir. Wong’s a TV writer and stand-up comedian, and those skills won’t translate smoothly to a book. It’s not ideal, but whatever.
But instead of letting me feel like she’s doing her best, Wong kept emphasizing that she’s not really worried about the book
The first few letters weren’t any better.
I just didn’t buy the framing device. We all know this is a book, not actual letters to Wong’s daughters. The intended audience is a completely unrelated reader. For most of the book, I didn’t feel like I was hearing Wong impart “secrets” or “advice.” I was just reading long-winded, graphic descriptions of her sexual history. In Wong’s stand-up, those anecdotes are honed for punchy live performance; here, they’re stripped of context and overwritten. Stand-up requires tight joke density, and without that constraint, many of Wong’s stories flounder. Many of them never reach a point. There’s no punchline, no irony, no lesson. Just naughty words.
Halfway through, though, Wong finds a rhythm.
Ali Wong gets a lot of mileage out of her sexual misadventures in her stand-up, so it makes sense that she wanted to lead with that in the book. But Dear Girls doesn’t really get interesting until Wong moves on to other topics.
The graphic, gross sex stuff doesn’t really have a point. The graphic, gross parenting stuff, though? Indespensible. Wong doesn’t hold back on icky details of childbirth and infant care, and it gives those chapters real punch. We hear about all the gooey, bloody, humiliating, sticky stuff, partly to pop the bubble of idyllic, blissful new parenthood, and partly to really bring to life what that period of Wong’s life was like. When she describes her mother providing help and support after her childbirth, I felt the weight of that, because I was reading exactly what that entailed. The book is a love letter (in the abstract sense) to Wong’s girls, and the horror that Wong went through for them is a necessary piece of that story.
Dear Girls is at its best when it considers the other characters in Wong’s life. The chapters on her parents, siblings, and husband are fascinating and hilarious.
Unfortunately, Dear Girls ends on a sour note.
The final letter is actually from Wong’s husband. That chapter is almost there. He writes about what it’s like to be married to a (now) successful comedian, what it’s like to make less money than his wife after graduating from Harvard Business School… he is so close to self-awareness. The chapter could have been thoughtful and confessional, but it doesn’t quite get there, and ends up a little irritating.
The real disappointment, though, comes in the third-to-last paragraph of the book, when Justin Hakuta (Wong’s husband) drops this line:
Who were we to take care of you and nurture such magical beings? But then instinct kicked in, along with relatives and Sofiya, your magical Ukrainian nanny, and we were off and running on our new adventure.”
There’s… a lot to unpack there. I’ll put aside, for a moment, the unnecessary reference of the nanny’s nationality and the eyebrow-raising use of the descriptor “magical.” In his narrative, the nanny is something that “kicks in” naturally as he and his wife get their feet underneath them as new parents. She’s not a person also doing work to raise the children.
It wasn’t until that last line that it hit me that, for all her detailed descriptions of post-birth infection and breastfeeding pains, Wong never once mentioned this nanny. She spends an entire chapter talking about the experience of being a stay-at-home full-time parent while on maternity leave, and how taxing it was. She spends paragraphs praising her husband for being so involved even though he still works. Never once, in her “unflinchingly honest” book, does Wong mention who is taking care of her children during the day. A woman instrumental in their upbringing doesn’t merit
I guess it’s good that this Sofiya gets mentioned at all, but the five words devoted to her soured my memory of the rest of the book.
Thank you to Random House for providing an advance review copy of this title. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.