The Donut Trap is a New Adult romance with strong coming of age themes. Jasmine’s parents sacrificed and suffered so that their children would have better lives, but at times, Jasmine feels like she and her brother are the sacrifices. They feel bowed down under a weight of expectation and obligation, and the result is that they both resort to hiding important parts of their lives from their parents.
A year or so after finishing college, Jasmine is back living at home with her parents, working from 6am to 10pm in her parents’ donut shop, while hunting for a ‘real’ job, and maybe even a boyfriend – though both more in theory than in practice. Working such long hours, there really is hardly room in her life for anything else… but her hours also form a handy excuse to avoid thinking about difficult things, or socialising with her friends from school and college, who are moving on with their lives and careers in a way that Jasmine feels she is not.
And then Alex, the boy she had a crush on in college, turns up at the donut shop. And he is just as handsome as ever, as well as being charming and clearly very interested in getting to know her better…
The Donut Trap does a first-rate job of depicting difficult family dynamics, particularly in the context of the immigrant experience. Indeed, it did this so well that I was almost unable to keep reading it. The weight of pressure and obligation and shame, the feeling of being trapped in a cycle with no way out, and also just the grueling amount of work Jasmine does in the shop were so intense that I found myself getting really stressed and anxious just reading about it (it didn’t help that the story was first person and from Jasmine’s viewpoint – the reader is really immersed in her troubles). How can you possibly complain about your own little stresses and anxieties when your parents literally fled the country they were born to escape the Khmer Rouge? Jasmine is caught in a trap where she can neither live up to her family’s expectations, nor escape them, nor even express her feelings about them honestly.
One thing that really bothered me was that her best friend, Linh, kept on telling her that she should just talk to her parents, they only wanted what was best for her, and while this was maybe technically true, there is no ‘just’ about it. What Jasmine’s parents thought was best for her seemed to have been decided without any consultation with Jasmine as to what she actually wanted. Much of the book was a masterclass in what happens if you love someone but fail to listen to them. Or when one generation thinks of love as being about pushing their children to be as good as they can be, as a matter of survival, while the other experiences this as never being good enough to deserve love. It is very emotionally destructive.
Basically, this was a brilliant piece of emotionally truthful writing and I found it an absolute horror to read. I will add that the family situation does have a happy and satisfactory resolution, but it takes a long time to get there.
I realise that I have dived straight into the family dynamics of this book without mentioning the romance, but this is because it seemed to me that they were the emotional core of the story. The romance with Alex, while sweet, felt distinctly secondary.
But let’s talk about it anyway because this is a romance novel blog, and also, it was definitely the more enjoyable half of the book!
With the story being told from Jasmine’s point of view, we never get to see quite what Alex is thinking – for the first part of the story, he could almost be a fantasy come to life: the boy she had a secret crush on in college also had a secret crush on her! And now he has reappeared in her life and he still thinks she is cute, even when she is eating Korean Barbecue and wearing grubby work clothes and not flirting because actually she is kind of grumpy at being surprised by her best friend and dragged out for lunch with a cute guy when she isn’t in the mood! And he even speaks Mandarin and knows how to impress her parents!
I enjoyed their awkward flirting via text and social media, and the way Alex really thought about what Jasmine might like when planning their first date. I also really liked the fact that the suave and charming Alex is not without his own family dramas, which render him just as awkward and off balance as Jasmine’s do her. And I appreciated that they were both pretty good at using their words when it counted. This is a closed door romance, so the on-page sexual content was limited to kisses, hand-holding, and a lot of appreciation for Alex’s abs, but the story did a good job of making these very sensual.
One thing I enjoyed a bit less was the low-key love triangle that developed at one point in the book. I could see why it worked thematically, with the things both Alex and Jasmine told and hid from their families in their romantic relationships, but I really could have done without it.
Also, I am contractually obliged to comment on the food porn levels in this book, which were strangely lacking in the early chapters, but picked up nicely when Jasmine started experimenting with new icing flavours about a third of the way into the book. And now I want donuts.
(UNRELATED BUT IMPORTANT FACT: My husband just brought donuts home from the bakery! How did he know?)
The Donut Trap is hard for me to grade fairly, because it pressed a few too many of my buttons. If you like somewhat angsty coming of age stories that speak to the immigrant experience, I think you will enjoy this. But if you’ve just come out of one of those holiday seasons that makes you feel grateful that Christmas comes but once a year, you might want to wait a few months before you read this story, or maybe skip it entirely. It’s a little too good at what it does. I think the writing is brilliant, but I had a miserable time reading it, and I don’t think I can grade it higher than a B minus when it made me so unhappy. I suspect it is going to be an amazing, affirming book for another reader out there, and I hope they find it!