Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Leavers

by Lisa Ko

"One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon—and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind.

Told from the perspective of both Daniel—as he grows into a directionless young man—and Polly, Ko’s novel gives us one of fiction’s most singular mothers. Loving and selfish, determined and frightened, Polly is forced to make one heartwrenching choice after another.
Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past."


Another Book of the Month choice for me; interestingly enough, it was a last minute add. I'd already chosen two books (I only wanted two), and this one was third choice. At the last second though I thought, "Meh, I'll just add it." It turned out to be my favorite one for the month (which, honestly doesn't speak volumes, as I didn't love my others, but still, I did enjoy this one).

I tend to love novels that draw a contrast between life in the United States and life in other countries. Ko handled this dichotomy exceptionally well and I easily felt the stark difference between life in China and life in New York City. 

Sidebar: What I always find interesting about this type of novel, is the underlying current. Authors in this genre always describe the immigrant struggle to come to America; they describe the view of the United States as this golden land of opportunity; they describe the sacrifices made (everything, basically) to get here -- and yet, once the immigrant characters arrive, the authors begin to utilize dark, melancholy descriptions. Writers use descriptors like "slate gray sky," and "cold air, heavy with the threat of yet another snow," and "the river rushed by, menacing and steel, frigid to the touch." This book was no exception to this rule, and I appreciate that. I obviously don't experience America from an immigrant's perspective; I'm a citizen -- all opportunities have been afforded to me, and I have no idea what it's like to long for a life in another country, only to arrive and find the sky to be a perpetual "slate gray."

This sadness, this color gray, underlined each scene of this novel. Life outside of America is hard. Life inside of America is hard for immigrants. The novel begins with Deming (later named Daniel) and his mother Polly crammed into a one bedroom apartment with three other people in the Fordham area of The Bronx. Polly works at a nail salon, from which she one day disappears. As Polly's boyfriend searches for Polly, only to hit dead-ends at each turn, the reader spirals with Deming, watching his despair, wondering what it feels like to be in his shoes -- while simultaneously feeling grateful to never have lived through this experience.

Time jumps forward ten years, and Deming is now living in Upstate New York as Daniel (renamed by his well-meaning adoptive parents). Though it's clear that Deming/Daniel has been provided for and loved, the loss of his mother still scars him -- he meanders through his days as a lost a soul, unsure of his place in the world, still feeling confused and ultimately, abandoned.

The story is told from the perspective of both Deming/Daniel and Polly, so the reader does learn about her life, and ultimately what became of her; though her story didn't appeal to me as much as Deming/Daniel's did, I enjoyed reading it and found it to be integral to the novel.

I believed Deming/Daniel to be a fairly selfish character, but I absolved him of this because he'd experienced such trauma and spent the novel drowning. I found Polly to be a fairly selfish character as well, though I don't know how I would have behaved in her situation, so I also gave her leeway. 

As for Deming/Daniel's adoptive parents -- they meant well, but I really didn't like them -- mainly because they changed Deming's name to Daniel. Deming wasn't a baby when he was adopted; he was  10 years old. He was in fifth grade. I can't imagine stripping a 10-year-old of his identity to "help him fit in" to his new, rural, racially and culturally homogeneous life, but that's exactly what they did, and I resented them for it the entire time. Also, I'm not entirely certain how realistic the adoption process in this novel is; it seemed far too straight-forward, but I don't know enough about adoption to comment further.

I've spent this review focused mainly on the characters and that's because they are so highly developed. This novel is a human study. Though it does contain a plot (this is not a slice-of-life story), I found the book to be driven by its characters. Ko's writing is strong, though I wouldn't describe it as particularly lyrical or pretty. It's simple -- which I appreciate also, and I had no trouble following along.

I'm knocking off 1.5 stars because I felt that the book began to drag toward the end, and when I finished reading, I was quite ready to move on. I do recommend it though; I personally think it's important to learn about the experiences of others, particularly those sacrificing all they have to come to the United States -- and whether or not you agree with their actions is unimportant, as novels such as this aim to shed light on the decision-making process, and The Leavers is successful in this venture.

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟⋆

Buy this book here.

Up Next and Coming Soon: History of Wolves (Kindle), Into the Water (Hardcover), Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (Audible)


  1. Good review! I didn't read this one - your take on the immigrant experience is interesting!

    1. Thanks! If you ever feel like reading it, you can borrow my copy. I think you'd probably like it -- though maybe not love it.