- Title: The Leavers
- Author: Lisa Ko
- Genre: Contemporary Fiction
- Structure: Interchanging third-person and first-person character perspectives
- First Line: “The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school.”
Synopsis: One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.
With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy.” But far away from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.
Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging. It’s the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away–and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of her past.
This powerful debut is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.
If I’m being honest, I thought this book was going to be making my top shelf for the year, given the ravings on it. However, I got about a third of the way through and still wasn’t sold, which isn’t a good sign. I think it’s a good book, but not a great book. That being said, there are a few things that struck me.
- This is one of those books that are perfect for the beach, the pool, or a lazy afternoon. You can completely get lost in. I love (and prefer) books like this. It will take you into an entirely new world.
- It addresses important topics that remain largely untouched today. This is not the first immigrant story book I’ve reviewed. I truly enjoy reading ones that include immigrant journeys because they’re unique and they reveal hardships that many of us don’t face. I also appreciated the fact that Ko delves into fostering and adoption. There were a lot of moving parts that, as someone who’s never experienced that system, were interesting and heartbreaking. Not to mention, Ko does not shy away from the racism that the Asian community receives in the US, which is not a type of racism that we, as Americans, actively acknowledge as much as other forms (in my opinion). Overall, super kudos for the many, many social justice issues Ko tackles.
- The writing is great. Lisa Ko is a beautiful writer. There appears to be a conclusiveness across the board that Ko has the ability to make the most mundane thing seem intriguing.
THE UNFAVORABLE BITS
I think many people would enjoy this book, but it didn’t feel like a good fit for me. I had several gripes with it. The first thing is that the detail was nearly Dickens level. Dickens described everything in excruciating detail (mainly because he was payed by the word, so who wouldn’t?). However, I think the excessive detail stalled the storing and made it stale at some points. There were moments where the detail was so overwhelming that I found my mind wandering to more interesting thoughts.
The second gripe I have is that there was seemingly no character development, which is frustrating for a “coming of age” story. The main character does not seem to have any likable or interesting traits about him. He is stuck in this self-sabotage hell loop. Overall, I can’t say I like any of the characters. Usually when this happens, it’s because they’re not relatable. That’s not the case here. I think they’re plenty relatable. I also think they have no substance, no desire or drive to change. When the drive does pop up, it’s temporary or it plays into such a huge and predictable character flaw that it reads as boring.
As per usual, I let you know about any graphic parts or strong language in case you’re sensitive or in case you want to recommend the book. There are some slightly graphic parts and there is some strong language.
THE SWEET SPOTS
In this section, I cover some of my deeper, personal thoughts. Books are meant to make you think. I always think the best books are the ones that help you discover pieces of yourself.
- Did this book remind you of anything that has happened to you?: I think this book did a great job at highlighting how lonesome discovering yourself can be. I think it’s crucial that everyone takes moments to understand who they are, what they need, and where they want to go in life. What many people don’t talk about is that, sometimes, this is a lonely journey because the only person who can give you answers is you. The loneliness can get haunting, but it doesn’t last forever.
- Did this book give you any new ideas of yourself?: It showed me how impactful decisions are. We live in a giant web, where we are, somehow, all interconnected more than we realized. One decision, one choice, can catapult us into a completely different life. Sometimes, the most intense choice is leaving. We all leave at some point. We leave our homes when we’re adults. We leave jobs that no longer serve us. We leave past partners in search for our one, true partner. All these moments of change determine our paths. It’s a harrowing realization.
- What lesson did you learn?: The United States is not free from poverty. Racism has some of the deepest roots I’ve ever seen. Even the most subtle forms can be the most haunting. The sense of loss over a parent that chooses to leave is unparalleled. It is not mercy to “save” someone; it may be the thing that clips their wings instead.
I give this book a solid 3/5 stars. I don’t think this book was a good fit for me, but I could see many people enjoying it. I think the way Ko addressed racism, fostering, adoption, and sexism is prudent to what we’re facing today. Despite the writing being beautiful, the excessive details sometimes got in the way of the story. I also did not think the characters had any development and lacked a certain amount of substance. This, in turn, made the story dull and lackluster. Overall, if you love contemporary fiction, you would probably enjoy this book just fine.
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I received The Leavers from the Book of the Month Club for May 2017. It was so great to receive personalized book recommendations at my doorstep! Honestly, I’m not sure if I would’ve picked up and experienced The Leavers if it wasn’t for BOTM. You can join the club here for under $20 a month!
*Thank you Book of the Month Club for sponsoring this. All opinions are my own.