Book Review: Gadget Girl (Suzanne Kamata)
Reviewed by Linda Cronin
Suzanne Kamata's first novel, Gadget Girl (Gemma Press, 2013), deftly handles the issues of being a bi-racial adolescent with a disability without ever becoming weighed down or didactic. The issues are so interwoven with the characters' stories and personalities that only on reflection after finishing the book does the reader become aware of how much has been dealt with.
The plot line is not unusual but with Kamata's skillful creation of characters and use of details the story comes alive. Fifteen-year-old Aiko Cassidy lives with her sculptor mother in a small Midwestern town. Aiko, who has cerebral palsy, has been her mother's muse for much of her life. However now that she is older, she no longer wants to be the focus of her mother's work – although she realizes that is the way her mother pays the bills. Aiko, who wishes for the most part to be invisible, works hard on her own dream of becoming a manga (comic book) artist and manages to create a manga starring her alter ego Lisa Cook. Lisa develops superpowers after swallowing a shooting star and is able to rescue boys and capture their hearts. Aiko is half Japanese and longs to go on a trip to Japan to meet the manga artists she worships as well as her father, an indigo farmer she has never met. Instead, to her chagrin, Aiko and her mother travel to Paris after a sculpture of Aiko wins an international competition. It is in Paris that Aiko meets Herve, a handsome waiter, and begins to realize perhaps it isn't always best to be invisible. She also begins to look at her family in a new light and her relationship with her mother grows accordingly.
Kamata creates a realistic portrait of an adolescent with a disability. Due to her cerebral palsy, Aiko's left hand is curled and weak, and she lacks strength and coordination in one leg. Because of these problems, Aiko often finds herself stumbling and falling. As someone who grew up with a disability, I can truly understand her desire to be invisible. When I was her age I wanted nothing more than to blend in and not to be seen for my disability. Aiko wants other people to know her as her best friend Whitney does – to know her snarky and sometimes caustic personality. She hates feeling like people are staring at or pitying her because of her disability. Thankfully, Kamata does not idealize the situation; she realistically portrays the difficulties Aiko runs into at times just doing the activities of every day, including her continuous physical therapy.
Aiko is a very talented artists in her own right and it is her art that Aiko wants people to notice. She works hard to re-create her vision for her manga series, yet keeps her role as artist and creator a secret because she's afraid that people will focus more on her disability than on the actual strengths of the work. To me, Aiko's desire for her work to stand for itself rings true. Whether you are an adolescent with a disability or an adult, you always want your accomplishments to stand for themselves. I know that as a writer I don't want people to say anything even remotely like "her writing is good considering she has a disability or being that she is disabled, her writing…" I want my writing to be seen separately from my disability and judged for itself.
Kamata also develops the idea of what it is like to be a biracial child in a Midwestern town that is filled with mainly Caucasian people. Aiko has lived all her life with her Caucasian mother and has never even met her father who still lives in Japan. Aiko is very curious about Japanese culture and has tried several times to grow an indigo plant although she does not live in the proper climate. She often dreams about going to Japan and idealizes what a meeting with her father would be like. She also independently studies the Japanese language through a series of language tapes. Thus Aiko's disappointment, which Kamata realistically describes, when she learns they will be going to Paris instead of Japan. Aiko's mother has told her that her father's parents could not accept a mixed-race relationship and did not want their son to marry her. She lets her daughter believe that her father is not aware of her existence although the reader learns that this is not quite the truth.
Kamata also deals with another inevitable subject – the wish to be "cured." Aiko's best friend Whitney is obsessed with old films and movie stars. It is with her that Aiko first sees The Song of Bernadette which tells the story of the young girl who first saw the vision of Mary at Lourdes. After seeing the movie, Aiko begins the dream about what it would be like if she too could be cured at Lourdes. I can honestly say that I don't know anyone with a disability that hasn't sometime wished for it to go away. Again as in every other aspect of the novel, Kamata's depiction of being an adolescent with a disability rings true. Aiko begins to hope that while in France she can go to Lourdes. She imagines what it will be like if when she finally met her father, she were no longer disabled and could help him in the indigo fields.
Aiko has grown increasingly tired of being her mother's muse and Aiko feel self-conscious when she sees people looking at the statues of her, especially as she grows older. Most teens go through a time of feeling self-conscious but few are continually seeing themselves on display in someone's sculptures. At one point in the novel, she asks her mother why she never focuses her art on so-called "normal" people. But when her mother asks her if she doesn't consider herself normal, Aiko changes the subject. After Aiko makes a comment in the gallery about her mother finding her own subject and not always telling someone else's story, her mother says: "If you feel so strongly about having your own voice, you should do something about it. You could tell people what is like to be you."
"Yeah I could tell them how I hated physical therapy as a child, how I once flailed so badly while trying to get away that I broke my therapist's glasses. Or how I always got picked last for the teams and how my classmates called me names and made fun of my way of walking. But who wants to hear all these sad stories? Isn't it way more fun to read about firebreathing dragons and magical elixirs? Boomeranging bottle openers and wind-powered whisks? I'd rather stick to Gadget Girl." (Kamata 115)
In Paris when Aiko meets Herve, the son of a friend of her mother's and a waiter in his father's café, she begins to realize that is not always desirable to be invisible. She learns that it is possible to have a voice that is not focused on disability that includes it as just one aspect. Herve is not dissuaded by her disability but realizes that there is a lot more to Aiko then cerebral palsy. They share an interest in manga and Herve helps her spread her manga throughout Paris.
Kamata's novel is perfect for children in middle school and early adolescence whether they are dealing with a disability or not. Her main character may be disabled but the issues Aiko deals with our familiar to any young adolescent or anyone who's ever been through adolescence. It does have additional value for those children who are dealing with disabilities or are biracial. But many things including Aiko's troubled relationship with her mother, a longing for her father, her desire to blend in with everyone else will be familiar to many people. Kamata raises many difficult issues throughout the novel without ever letting the story feel heavy or pedantic. The reader is anxious to turn each page to learn what will happen the next day for Aiko and is left wondering what her future may be like. I look forward to seeing more work in the future by Kamata.