book review: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

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THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko
★★★
Algonquin Books, May 2017

I’m having a hard time getting my thoughts together on The Leavers. You know those books that technically do everything right, but you still don’t love them for some reason? 3 stars feels unfair to the author, who’s created a beautiful story that sweeps across multiple generations and locations, but I’m in the habit of using my reviews and ratings to express my personal experience with books. I’m not trying to reach an objective truth, here, just explain why I wasn’t able to love this book the way I’d thought I was going to.

The Leavers tells the story of Deming Guo, whose mother, Peilan, leaves for work one day in New York City and never comes home. Deming is then adopted by a white family, the Wilkinsons, who live in rural upstate New York. The story then follows Deming, who’s been rechristened Daniel, in the decade following his adoption, as he tries to assimilate to his new life while still searching for information about his birth mother.

If this book had been told entirely from the point of view of Peilan, I probably would have given it 5 stars. I found her chapters riveting; from her early years growing up in a small Chinese village to working in a factory in Fuzhou to her immigration to America, I thought her story was compelling, and I could not put the book down during these segments. Unfortunately, this was a comparatively rather small part of the novel.

I just could not get invested in Deming. While there was a lot that I found intriguing about his character – his insecurity about his cultural identity, never feeling American enough or Chinese enough to fit anywhere, as well as his uncertainty about his future – there was also a lot that just bored me, for lack of a better word. So much of his narrative focuses on his gambling addiction as well as his floundering career as a guitarist, and I just felt detached from a lot of it, like I was viewing the action of this story through a hazy lens and I didn’t care enough to examine it more closely. I was often frustrated by Deming, who made a series of poor decisions without much thought for the consequences, and I think this frustration was partially the point, but this character just never managed to grab me in the way I had hoped for. I pitied him in an abstract kind of way, but given that this is a largely character driven novel, there just wasn’t enough to sustain my interest.

The parts of this novel that deal with the unique struggles of being a Chinese American adoptee – quite literally torn between two worlds – are heart-wrenching and fascinating, but I’m sorry to say that for the most part, this book just left me cold. It’s very technically well made, just lacking in emotional resonance for me. Sometimes certain books just don’t work for certain readers, and there isn’t always a rhyme or reason to it, which I think might be the case here.

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