Anthony Youn's Strong Medicine

No one is spared in Anthony Youn’s memoir In Stitches (Gallery Books), least of all Youn himself. The entire first half of the 268-page book piles on an unrelenting series of painful moments to show what a hopeless geek and misfit he was growing up in the lone Asian family in a Michigan town of 6,000.

The evidence is persuasive — so excruciatingly persuasive that I would have put the book down as just too depressing to read but for the fact that, between turning pages and snorting aloud in unexpected laughter, I was just too busy to turn off my reading lamp.

Young Anthony groans under many burdens — a family whose dinners consist of nameless deep sea creatures and stench-making casseroles, bullies who torment him, girls who ignore him, and worst of all, an OB GYN father who insists that Anthony become a surgeon so he can make big “dollah”. Life looks bleak for the geek until, at long last, he escapes to college. Then it becomes utterly hopeless as every daydream is cruelly dashed by the realities of a small all-white campus.

The reader knows going in that at some point the author will emerge as a plastic surgeon who ultimately achieves enough success to appear regularly on national TV. The only real suspense is in learning how and when Youn manages to turn his life around. But about halfway through the book, my focus shifted from his hilariously pathetic personal life to the more intriguing issue of how (or if) a callow young man, pressured into medical school by his father, acquires the spiritual and emotional dimensions needed to sustain the grueling transformation into a doctor and a surgeon.

To emerge a hero in one’s own memoir an author must bleed his narrative of all traces of insecurity, self-indulgence and sentimentality and let events speak vividly for themselves. Anthony Youn does that brilliantly (with help from seasoned veteran Alan Eisenstock). In Stitches delivers every bit of the intimate memoir of an Asian American coming of age in the midwest — and more, thanks to Youn’s gift for seeing the comical side of every painful moment.

The book’s big unexpected bonus is Youn’s unflinching depiction of how a seemingly haphazard medical education system turns out men and women somehow equipped with the skill, commitment and compassion to take on the challenges of saving lives. Anyone who reads the book will look forward, as I do, to a sequel from this very appealing new voice.

Read Q&A with Anthony Youn