Win Me Something
Kyle Lucia Wu
Tin House | November 2, 2021
In Kyle Lucia Wu’s debut novel Win Me Something, twenty-four-year-old Willa Chen takes the position with the white, wealthy Adriens as nine-year-old Bijou’s nanny and quickly becomes enmeshed in the Adrien family. Willa’s own parents—her father emigrating from China, and her mother white—divorced when she was young, and both later remarried and had children with Willa’s respective stepparents. The result, as Willa explains it, was multiple homes and multiple families, or no home and no family, depending on how you looked at it. As Willa compares her childhood to Bijou’s and her family to the Adriens throughout the novel, she explores her sense of loneliness and tries to make sense of her place in her family.
Interwoven with these themes of family, love, and belonging is a quiet but resonant coming-of-age story. The novel, written in first person, opens with Willa’s admission that she was unprepared for her role as a nanny: “I didn’t know what it looked like to take care of someone.” Willa’s uncertainty about what care is, what it looks like, frames much of the narrative. At first, looking at the Adriens family, Willa conflates the time and attention that comes from caring with the time and attention money can afford. On weekdays after school, Willa takes Bijou to her activities—Mandarin classes, dance classes, violin lessons, with an afternoon for museum trips or extra homework. Bijou prefers that Willa wait outside the room or watch in the window during these lessons and she obliges. “This is what money bought,” Will reflects, “someone waiting for you right outside the door.”
Willa is happy to wait, especially as she and Bijou grow closer. But here, Willa recognizes the privilege her ward has. Not only is she spending weekdays in costly extracurricular activities with friends, but she doesn’t have to give up time and attention for the hour-long lessons. This sets up a perhaps unfair binary between Bijou’s childhood and Willa’s own— Bijou’s is marked by people being present and Willa’s by people’s absence. Willa also begins to recognize her role as a conduit for Nathalie and Gabe’s care for their daughter—spending time with Bijou when they travel for business, taking her to extracurriculars, and being present and attentive in their absence. This confuses her clean-cut comparison between her childhood and Bijou’s, and it troubles Willa’s equation of good care with money.
Willa also equates good care with good food. Bijou loves cooking; the little girl uses her own set of dull knives and offers directions while Willa attempts to make the simple dinners that Nathalie, Bijou’s mom, requests. These simple dinners—meatballs, pastas—appear limp and dull in comparison to the involved cooking that the Adriens do together—homemade salad dressings, paellas—and they occasionally end up uneaten. The meals that the Adriens eat and the foods they allow their daughter to have mark their class. They’re also reminders of Willa as an outsider, an employee for the family—a well-liked but live-in one. While Willa doesn’t often share differences between her childhood and Bijou’s with the little girl, she does comment on their different experiences with food. When Willa takes Bijou out for lunch during a school vacation, Willa jokes about taking the child to Burger King, and Bijou is shocked that Willa’s mom allowed this. Willa explained that everyone’s mom allowed this at one point, and that fast food doesn’t “literally kill you.” Bijou responds knowingly. “I think it’s more that it slowly kills you.”
This conversation comes before Bijou and Willa get food poisoning, from not fast food but a cafe with outdoor seating that reminds Willa of Paris. When they get back to the Adriens’ apartment, Nathalie is working from home, and she comforts both Bijou and Willa with damp cloths and kind words. Most important to Willa, Nathalie checks on the two girls throughout the evening and the night as they sleep off their illness. Wu’s construction here is light-handed but powerful, as it is so often throughout the book. Here, these scenes leave the reader struck by the contradictions of Nathalie, her kindness, her entitlement, and her awful snobbery. Even so, you wonder whether she’d offer Willa the same care for food poisoning from a fast-food chain. You also wonder why Willa is so taken with this family, so intent on earning her precarious place in their home.
Wu makes this exploration of Willa’s search for her place central to the novel in its structure. At the end of the fourth chapter, Willa confesses, “I felt a kind of hot jealousy for how Bijou would turn out, having been raised in the arms of someone who knew what they were doing.” The following chapter is the first flashback of many throughout the novel, taking place a decade or so earlier and focusing on Willa’s memories of growing up with her mother in New Jersey and visiting her father in upstate New York. Though Willa finds the amenities and ease Adriens’ wealth afford them, her “hot jealousy” has less to do with Bijou’s financial privilege and more to do with her family structure: Bijou’s parents, both white like her, live in the same house. Bijou’s place in her family is clear, and she holds both her mother’s and her father’s attention.
The chapters exploring Willa’s childhood are marked by her loneliness and her desire to belong. Willa often reflects on growing up biracial with her white parent as her primary caregiver. When kids at school taunt her with racist slurs, she feels like her mom wouldn’t understand and opts to stay quiet instead. Later, after her half-siblings are born, Willa struggles to feel like she belongs in either family structure. Wu unpacks these feelings delicately, granting Willa her memories and her hurt without placing blame on either parent. The result is a messy, heartfelt portrayal of parents doing their best to love their kid.
This messiness is part of the appeal of working with the Adriens and part of the reason why Willa becomes so enthralled with being a part of their family—they offer an experience of a neat, idealized nuclear family structure that Willa is invited not only to glimpse but to almost participate in. This, however, comes at a cost. Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that Willa’s participation in the Adrien family is not without faults. After passing a part-time trial run and moving to full-time employment, Willa becomes the family’s live-in nanny. Living in the same house, however, seems to make Nathalie more concerned with drawing the line between family and employee. Though she invites Willa to extended family dinners, Nathalie also tasks Willa with watching all the cousins when they arrive early or making the salad dressing while the rest of the family sits down. Willa vacillates between discomfort in the assignments and pride in being needed; her relationship to the Adren family is convoluted, and her emotions, particularly in moments when her place is unpredictable, are complicated.
Wu excels in conveying Willa’s complicated emotions throughout the novel, and the result is both satisfying and compelling. Willa learns how care can look like so many things—a nanny waiting outside a lesson, a father who lives in another state, a mother who loves you, a sibling asking for dinners when they move to the city. It’s in these subtle lessons that Wu’s quiet, understated prose builds to a deeply moving coming-of-age novel.