14-year old Candace Ong wants to be something other than the “Eggroll Girl” in her parents’ San Francisco Chinese Restaurant. She wants her parents to speak better English. She wants to have the freedom of her brother Kenny, who by dint of being male is allowed to wander through his life chore-free. She wants to live somewhere other than the small apartment over the restaurant. But more than anything, she wants to be pretty and popular like her friend Ruby.
Never mind the fact that Ruby is a budding Lolita who seems to have a taste for pedophiles. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that pedophiles seem to have a taste for her. Nonetheless, Candace models herself after Ruby, and starts getting herself into mishap after mishap.
In one way, this was a fairly typical coming-of-age story of the child of an immigrant family, and it is also the story of a girl in a particular time. Set in 1983, Candace has a freedom that it doesn’t seem like the typical teenager has today. I can certainly remember that heady freedom of going off and doing what you wanted, when you wanted it. (It also brought back the memory of jelly shoes. Remember those? I had a pair when I was 11; they were translucent pink, and the only time I felt more hip was when I clattered around in my red Dr. Scholls when I was six.)
But on the other hand, there is something dark about I Want Candy that is at odds with the cheerful title and innocence of the moniker eggroll girl. Despite feeling trapped by her life, the freedom–arguably from parental neglect–that Candace does have is frightening and what she does with it even more so.
When Ruby dies in a freak accident, her ghost comes back to Candace along with the ghosts of other women from Chinatown. Candace sees them all. And this, to me, was one of the most amazing things about this novel. My first encounter with Chinese-American literature was through Maxine Hong Kingston, and the idea of the supernatural made a huge impression on me when I first read it. I Want Candy incorporates the same idea, but there’s a difference: Ruby’s ghost is always prosaic. But there is something about that very matter-of-factness that makes the whole idea even more creepy.