Thursday, August 9, 2018

Book 141: The Leavers

"What a relief it had been to find him, to have someone to come home to, letting the everyday concerns take over: lesson planning at World Top English and where to go to dinner, filling myself up with tasks and conversation and possessions until there was no longer space to think about you. This is what could happen in a city like this. A woman could come from nowhere and become a new person. A woman could be arranged like a bouquet of fake flowers, bent this way and that, scrutinized from a distance, rearranged."

Dates read: April 21-24, 2017

Rating: 5/10

A few years ago, I did 23 And Me. America is, by and large, a nation of people who came from somewhere else, and I was curious where my family came from. My dad's side of the family, especially my grandmother's line, has been in the country for a long time and they've kept good records tracing our family back to the old country. But my grandfather on that same side was the son of a Polish immigrant who had no records of his family, and my mom's side is a big question mark since she was adopted as an infant.

In Lisa Ko's The Leavers, Deming Guo doesn't need any help to know where he came from. Born in the United States to Polly Guo, who had herself smuggled to America to escape a dead-end life in China, Deming was actually sent back to his mother's home village for a few years to live with his grandfather while Polly worked endlessly to try to make some headway on her debts to the loan sharks that got her to New York City in the first place. When we meet Deming, he's in elementary school, living with his mother, her boyfriend, the boyfriend's sister, and her son, Michael, who's about the same age as Deming himself. Then, suddenly, after Polly starts talking about maybe moving to Florida for a job in a restaurant instead of the crushing grind of the nail salon she's been working in for years, she disappears. Already economically strapped, Polly's boyfriend and his sister can't afford to keep Deming with them for long, and he's soon adopted by a pair of white upstate professors, where his new parents dub him "Daniel", ostensibly to help him get along easier in the overwhelmingly white town he finds himself in.

We next catch up with Daniel in his early 20s, back in NYC and doing musician gigs after he dropped out of college because of an online poker problem. He's crashing with his bandmate, Roland, the only other person of color that he went to school with, and trying to figure out how to avoid going back to school like his parents want him to. He's never found out what happened to his mother, but after a chance reconnection with Michael, his curiosity is reawakened. As he starts to pursue the issue, the perspective changes and we get Polly's and why she came to have Deming, how and why she came to America, and what actually did happen when she disappeared.

I never DNF (do not finish) books, but if I did, I would have dropped this one after about the first 50 or so pages. While the way his childhood played out would give anyone emotional scars, Daniel himself is not an enjoyable character to spend time with. He's whiny, he steals money from his friends, he's a coward. I really did not enjoy reading about him. But when the story switched to his mother, the book took off. Polly is a dynamic, interesting character who practically springs off the page, and her story is easy to get emotionally invested in. I wish Ko had either started with more of Polly or just made her the primary focus of the book overall...starting with Daniel seems like asking to lose a decent chunk of your audience straight out the gate.

And to miss this book entirely would be a shame. Although it's uneven, there's really solid stuff here. Like I said, Polly's story is a great one: she's a fantastic character and her struggles to make it are compelling. Ko also had me cringing in recognition at the way she painted Daniel's adoptive parents and their friends, who adopted a baby girl from China...the self-satisfied pats on their own backs for helping their children "connect with their culture" through food and dance classes, the way Deming is renamed like he's a puppy they picked up at the pound instead of a person. By the end, Ko has developed Daniel into a more understandable character and I came around to appreciating the book, but it really makes you slog through some bad (not even just like challenging, but bad) content to get there.

Tell me, blog friends...does a bad beginning turn you off a book entirely?

One year ago, I was reading: Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

Two years ago, I was reading: The Lords of Discipline


  1. I always quit after 50 pages if a book doesn't appeal to me. I didn't do that when I was young, but since I no longer am young, I don't want to waste time on crappy reading when there is so much wonderful stuff out there. Most of the time it is not the problem you might think because I am a good selector and I know what I don't like.

    1. I'm a die-hard always finisher, and while I do occasionally re-evaluate that for exactly the reason you described, I have had experiences where a book took a while to really take off or finished really strong. I don't know. I think it's a stubbornness thing to be honest!