It’s always exciting to find contemporary books set in Japan from non-Japanese authors. And the premise of Rachel Cohn’s “My Almost Flawless Tokyo Dream Life” is nearly as enticing as the kitschy-cute manekineko (lucky cat) cover.
After her mother is sent to prison, 16-year-old Elle Zoellner discovers her estranged Japanese father, Kenji Takahara, wants to whisk her out of foster care to live in Tokyo, where she’ll attend the prestigious (and fictional) International Collegiate School of Tokyo (ICS) alongside the capital’s upper-crust. Struggling to adjust to her new life and connect with her father and extended Japanese family, Elle quickly falls in with the uberpopular “Ex-Brats” at school. Think “Mean Girls” meets “Gossip Girl,” but in Japan … sort of.
Besides the soap opera plot and Elle’s awkwardly juvenile, stilted dialogue, “Almost Flawless” disappoints by wasting its setting. Elle shuttles between her father’s hotel and the ICS, neither of which have any distinguishing features. Dropping a few Japanese words and a bland description of Shibuya as having “tall buildings, flashing advertisements … and level after level of stores and restaurants” isn’t a sufficient save.
Cohn does attempt to address Japan’s LGBTQ communities and substance abuse issues but, lacking a proper grounding, the book comes off as superficial and stereotypical. There’s also a cringy scene where Elle is told “the more you assimilate, the better it will be for you.” Not quite the “finding the inner strength to be yourself” pitched in the blurb.