Review: Patron Saints of Nothing

I’m not sure where to start with this because there’s so much about Patron Saints of Nothing to love: do I mention how authentically-but-not-tropely teenager-like Jay, the protagonist, feels? Should I talk about how the book makes a real-world event, happening right now, become meaningful and accessible to readers across the ocean in ways that journalism can’t? What about the fact that every person in this story (it feels weird for me to call them characters at this point) gets an opportunity to live and tell a story that is as much their own as it is the story of millions of people? Selfishly, the queer in me wants to talk about the representation, but I think it might be best to start somewhere else.

Also check out this cover art

Randy Ribay wrote a book that is a lot of things: loving, illuminating, excellent — but the word I keep circling back to is important. I think that’s why it’s hard to decide where to start – there’s no single thing about the book that makes it important; it’s the book in its entirety, and how all the different elements I mentioned above – and more – feed off of and into each other.

The story is about the aforementioned Jay (short for Jason) Reguero, a teenaged Filipino-American boy who lives in Michigan with his Filipino dad and his white mom. From the outset, you feel like you already know Jay: he’s the one brown kid who you know of from school but who you don’t really know. This is partly because you’ve noticed him for what makes him different, and without realizing it you decide you know something about him because of that; but it’s also partly because he’s mastered the skill of fitting in just enough to stay out of the general consciousness as a way to deal with the other-ness he feels, and to stay safe in his school.

Mind you, the secret that nearly every teenager learns, but only once they’re well past their teens, is that everyone in high school has that same sense of desperation in wanting not to be noticed, because different is dangerous. But Jay shows readers another part of that, that a lot of us miss if we aren’t visibly a minority ourselves: white readers get a taste of what it’s like to want to fit in, but to have something about you that is overtly and immutably different. Jay can wear the same clothes, speak the same language, aspire to the same image of adult success, but he’ll still, always, be (and be seen as) Filipino-American – for better or worse, depending on who you ask.

This kind of otherness is powerful and permeating, and the way Ribay tackles it in Nothing is kind but also unflinching. There’s an interaction early on between Jay and his best friend that highlights the pain of it – when his friend starts a conversation with the dreaded, “promise me you won’t get offended,” the conversation goes exactly where you expect it to. But it all has to be said, and said in a way that is as explicit as it can be, especially for a novel that’s written for young readers: there’s a problem with whiteness being the default, and there’s a problem with assuming that things that differ from the norm is bad, and while someone can be as well-meaning as the day is long, sometimes people are perfectly justified in their anger at what you thought was a compliment. But it also shows that people can forgive, even if that forgiveness doesn’t come in that moment, or that day, or even that week. This interaction, for all its cringeworthiness, is also genuine and human and important.

This exploration of otherness gets explored from the other side of Jay’s identity as well when he travels to the Philippines to investigate his cousin’s death (the central plot of the book). I want to acknowledge here that this particular plot point is probably the only aspect of the book that I was skeptical of before I started reading Nothing. There’s a tendency I’ve found in YA lit to give the protagonists “diet superpowers,” that is, to make them remarkable in ways that are just past what one could realistically expect from a character their age. And while I don’t think that’s a problem – if it inspires young people to be more than they can, good! – it also feels a little cheap. So when reading the synopsis for Nothing, I felt a little skeptical reading that a seventeen-year-old was going to the Philippines to investigate his cousin’s death.

Fortunately, I was reassured early into the novel (and then very very nervous for him given the task he was tackling) (oh no my sweet Jay what are you getting yourself into) to find out that Jay’s… well, he’s very much a realistic seventeen-year-old, with no preternatural sleuthing skills to speak of. His time in the Philippines plays out realistically, and Ribay is kind enough to the reader and to Jay to make sure that he is looked after by a cast of characters who are believably competent, which gives Jay the space he needs to grow up quickly but authentically, given the circumstances. Disbelief happily not suspended!

Back to his time in the Philippines, the reader is given a chance to understand how painful being the other can be, which is so in line with Ribay’s dedication of the book: for the hyphenated. Although it’s touched on during his time home, once Jay lands in Manila the reader gets to see him grapple with the cost that he’s paid to try and fit in back home. Perhaps the biggest: Jay doesn’t speak Tagalog, one of the two national languages of the Philippines, and an overt marker to nearly everyone he comes in contact with that something about his identity doesn’t fit. We see how this recognition of his otherness plays out in his interactions variously with a customs agent, his family, and the folks he meets along the way, and I couldn’t help but wince for and with him each time someone else pointed at it. I think this is something that folks from mixed backgrounds intrinsically get, but is less obvious to others, and should be a core take-away for readers:

For the folks who exist on the margins – folks who straddle nationalities, or color lines, or various other identities, there’s immense pressure from both sides to fit into one identity or the other.

For some folks, I think the result is that one never gets to feel fully anything, and that can feel incredibly lonely. I hope that readers of Nothing pick that message up, and realize that they can be kind, and understanding, and try to hold space for the whole complexity of a person.

That last bit – recognizing that people are not simple things where a single label, or even two, can substitute for the whole-ness of their beings – is probably the biggest take-away of this book for me, and Ribay gets it across beautifully. The entire book lets the reader follow Jay’s journey from not just understanding himself as more than just a young man who’s going off to college because that’s what expected of him, but to understanding that the same thing applies to everyone around him. Every character, it seems, is introduced simply (justifiably so – Jay’s the narrator), but over the course of the book you learn that they are so much more than the handful of identity markers they get in the start.

That’s how people are in real life, and perhaps that’s why I think Patron Saints of Nothing is, above all, important. It’s important for others in the margins to read and see themselves reflected in art and the media – it lets them know they aren’t alone, they are worth telling stories about, and that someone else cares enough about them to put forth the effort. It’s also important for everyone else, because it gives anyone who reads it permission to feel and see aspects of themselves reflected in people they might not otherwise click with. The world always needs more empathy, but especially nowadays, it seems like we could go for a double helping.

Patron Saints of Nothing, by Randy Ribay, is slated for release in June 2019 by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.