Grazia Book Club: Mika In Real Life

Emiko Jean’s heartwarming debut explores motherhood, identity and trauma

by Maria Lally |
Published on

Mika Suzuki is 35, newly fired (again), broke, and living with her hoarder best friend Hana. She’s also keenly aware that she’s a disappointment to her traditional Japanese parents, especially her mother, who regularly lets Mika know just how far she’s fallen short of her high expectations.

Just when she’s wondering how her life can become any more chaotic, Mika receives a phone call that flips it upside down. Penny, the daughter she gave up for adoption sixteen years ago, calls her out of the blue and wants to meet. What follows is Mika’s attempt to quickly construct a false life for herself, one full of love and success, with the aim of impressing Penny.

‘The character of Mika came to me during lockdown when I was trying to take a photograph for social media for work,’ explains author Emiko Jean, a New York Times bestselling author of several YA (young adult) novels. ‘It was the height of the pandemic, one of my kids was throwing a temper tantrum, the other was poorly and snotty, and I put them both in front of the TV, painted the nails on one of my hands, did the front part of my hair, and put a nice top on, while wearing sweatpants. I suddenly thought, ‘Why am I pretending that everything is OK when it’s all falling apart? That became the question from which the story of Mika grew. Why would somebody fake a life?’

One of the most heart-breaking threads running through the book is the relationship between Mika and her mother, whose harsh treatment of her daughter has led to a lifetime of Mika feeling like she’s not enough. Meanwhile, Penny, the daughter Mika reluctantly gave up while in her first year of university, was raised by parents who showered her with love, has grown into a confident, high achieving, and self-assured young woman. Or as Emiko puts it: ‘All Penny wants is to take a bite out of life. Unlike Mika who is on the verge of nothing, her daughter is on the verge of everything.’

However, Mika does manage to find all the love she never received from her mother in her friendships, who are the family she built for herself. And later on, in the most unexpected place of all.

The book also explores the topic of adoption, and the legacy it leaves. ‘It was always part of the storyline that a woman had to place her daughter up for adoption,’ explains Emiko. ‘It felt like a choice Mika would have made. And I was interested in exploring transracial adoption, what that looks like, and how people reconnect after that. It always felt like part of the novel, and it played beautifully into the themes of motherhood within the book.’

As the story unfolds, and Mika’s lies threaten to bring everything she ever wanted crashing down around her, it’s impossible not to root for a woman whose self-esteem was destroyed in childhood. ‘After all,’ says Emiko, ‘that’s where all our stories begin, isn’t it?’

Grazia's Book Club Gives Its Verdict

‘This book was a delight. Managing to combine humour and emotion, it gives a good insight into parenting, cultural identity and growing up. The well written characters are relatable because we’ve all made poor decisions that hurt the people we love. Despite her flaws, Mika remains likeable and it’s easy to empathise with her. Overall a sweet, compelling read.’ Michaela

‘In this heart-warming book we meet Mika whose life is chaotic – shopping in Target on a weekday afternoon after losing your job type of chaotic. In a bid to impress the daughter she gave up for adoption, Mika paints herself as the main character in the life she always dreamed of, one where she’s hugely successful and happy. It’s a funny, touching and addictive read, and I adored the way our main character explored her Japanese heritage and the focus on the theme of the strength of female relationships and mother/daughter dynamics.’ Aisha

‘Such a page turned I forgot Netflix existed. Mika In Real Life is a perfect binge read. The exploration of mother daughter relationships is coloured by chaos, laughter, and love. A coming-of-age tale but with a 35-year-old protagonist…it’s about time!’ Fiona

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