Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Leavers

The Leavers by Lisa Ko is one of the few books I read this year that was released this year, and it's on the Tournament of Books 2018 long list and I'm sure it will make to the short list.

I enjoyed it immensely. For starters, it is quite different from just about everything else I've read this year, and that in itself is refreshing.

Here is the Amazon blurb:
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. 
I found the story fascinating and feel that I have a much better understanding of the stresses that immigrants face. Even those who enter the U.S. legally face enormous emotional, cultural, and physical hurdles that are difficult for me to comprehend and appreciate.

I liked Deming/Daniel so much, even when he was making bad choices, doubting himself and his talents, and looking for trouble. Surviving as he did is a testament to his strength of character despite his own misgivings.  Interestingly, I didn't like Polly, his mother, much until we got to the part of the book where she was allowed her own voice. Again, there is a lot about Polly that is unlikable, but at her core she is truly admirable--strong and fierce. A true survivor.

The only part that didn't quite work for me was the portrayals of Daniel's adoptive parents. They were just too cliched white yuppies who were clueless about the enormity of the role they assumed. I felt that Ko neither understood nor wanted to understand them and so left them as distinctly two-dimensional and bland characters in what was otherwise a rich and savory story.

I also absolutely love the synesthesia part of Daniel--he sees color as he hears sounds, especially music, and this helps him develop as a musician. I am fascinated by the concept of synesthesia and don't encounter it much in literature.

Finally, it ends well. There is resolution to the main stories of Deming/Daniel and Polly, but not finality. It is a realistic ending, and doesn't veer off the cliff as sometimes happens in novels. As a debut novel, The Leavers is remarkable in the tightness of structure, authenticity of voice, and cohesion of themes.

Excellent book that I highly recommend.


  1. This sounds fascinating. I love books with unique storylines. This story sounds like it would open up a great conversation at book club. I think I need to keep this one in mind for a future pick!

  2. Great commentary on this book. I cannot imagine the immigrant experience. It does indeed sound difficult.

    I think that I read three books published this year. That is a lot for me.

  3. Really fine review of this book and it sounds like a book well worth reading. And thanks for sharing that the author didn't do
    as good a job with the adoptive parents. Even very good books have their flaws and that needs to be mentioned too.

  4. My favorite immigration story this year was Behold the Dreamers. You've convinced me to give this a try, too.

  5. That whole synesthesia thing sounds fascinating. I'll have to see if my library has this one. :)

  6. We'll see if it makes the shortlist...sometimes I think they play "pin the tail on the donkey" to make it up!

    I was leaving this one for later because it is fairly long and I know I can easily get it from the library. Thanks for the review. It does sound super interesting!

    Right now I am concentrating on the shorter books that I can get from the library: Ties by Domenico Stardone and All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg...both under 200 pages!

  7. I've heard great things about this one! Glad you enjoyed it overall.

  8. Oh terrific news Jane so glad you liked it. I just got this one from the library. I haven't started it yet, but I plan to take it with me over Christmas. I've heard it's really strong, so I'm looking forward to it. thx