The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Genre: contemporary fiction/ literary
I read it as a(n): hardback
Length: 335 pp
Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Peilan “Polly” Guo arrives in NYC at the age of 19, pregnant and in debt up to her eyeballs to a loan shark. She left her small village in China to come to America for a better life as so many people have before her. She has her son, Deming, and works at various jobs to support him, living first in what is basically a flophouse with a dozen other women and then with her boyfriend, Leon; his sister, Vivian; and Vivian’s son, Michael. One day, Polly goes to work and doesn’t come home. Eventually, Deming is given into the foster system and adopted by the Wilkersons, a white couple living in rural upstate New York, who promptly rename him Daniel. Over the years, Deming/Daniel struggles to fit in anywhere and is haunted by the thought that his mother abandoned him.
There’s a lot we can say about this book. It is hard to organize my thoughts about it concisely so I probably won’t try too hard. But first, I thought it was just an ok novel. The book was technically well written, Ko did everything right in crafting the tale she had to tell. I just didn’t like it as well as I wanted to. It wasn’t a bad book at all, and I did like a lot about it. But I didn’t love it, and that was disappointing.
It addresses the obvious themes of immigration and belonging, playing with the concept of home in some interesting ways. Deming, though American by birth, spent his first several years in China being cared for by Peilin’s father. He didn’t remember America before that so he felt at home in China. He felt somewhat at home in NYC with his mother once he got to know her again, but mostly that was because of their close bond. Home is where your mama is, after all. But he felt out of place in society at large, and far more so once the Wilkersons adopted him. Peilin, too, never quite fit in, partly because her English wasn’t very good and she had difficulty communicating, and partly because she didn’t fit the mold of the stereotypical Chinese woman. She’s loud and brash and fiery, and a lot of people don’t know what to do with all that.
Peilin’s story was sad and, I suspect, mirrors the stories of thousands of immigrants. People talk about coming to America to make a better life for themselves. The American Dream, as it were. And yes, I would rather live here than in China or many other places. But I think emphasis needs to be placed upon dream in that phrase because the American Dream is really more of a pipedream than anything resembling reality. It isn’t real. Peilan wanted adventure and excitement in her life, not tedium and sameness. She went from a small village to a larger city, working in what sounded like a sweatshop and living in a dormitory of other women, on to NYC, where she also seemed to have worked in a sweatshop and piled in with a shitload of other women in a small apartment, all while owning tens of thousands of dollars to a loan shark who said he could get her legal immigration status. Really nothing changed for her, and I think I could argue that it in fact got worse for her in America. She was still working shit jobs day in and day out like she was in China. Only in America, she was also under a crushing debt while working insane hours for slave wages and hardly got to see her own child. And she was in a society that viewed her with suspicion or disdain and who didn’t speak her language. That sounds more like a nightmare to me, not a dream.
Lisa Ko made Deming see music in color, which I thought was different. I think that condition is synesthesia, where you use one sense but process it through another. He hears music but sees colors in varying intensities, depending on what kind of music he’s listening to. It didn’t seem to be a huge component of the story, but I wonder if it was supposed to be part of the reason why Deming wasn’t a good student ever. Even before Peilan disappeared and he was happy, Deming was struggling in school and either the school lacked the resources to help him or lacked the desire to help him. Either way, I thought it was an interesting addition to the story.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I hated the Wilkersons. I thought they were just gross. I felt deeply that they adopted Deming so they could say they adopted a non-white, underprivileged person and saved him from whatever horrible life they imagined he had before they managed to save him. They acted like they were fucking White Saviors. If I met people like them in real life, I would expect that they would say things to goad others into congratulating them on how accepting they are, how good they are to have adopted a kid who was older and a person of color to boot. Living in a rural area as they did, it was like they were putting Deming on display like an object, and he was certain to be noticed since he was one of only two people of color in the area that I noticed (his friend Roland, who was half Hispanic, was the second POC in town). Anyway, the Wilkersons take Deming and shove him into a fancy school and, when he’s college age, expect him to study what they want and go into the career they think he ought to. There is a heavy overtone of “you owe us” in their actions, a sense of obligation like Deming is indebted to them for adopting him and giving him what they consider to be a better life. I don’t feel like they actually loved him, just that they wanted to raise him up, as it were, and then make him follow in their footsteps even though he doesn’t want to, simply because he owes them.
I primarily blame the Wilkersons for Deming’s terrible choices. He is a gambling addict, which I know is a disease. He can’t help it. But the gambling, the drinking, the crappy grades, and the general failure to launch, I place that largely on the Wilkersons. There is no indication that they got Deming into therapy (if he did, then I’ve already completely forgotten that part!). Seems to me that if you adopt an older child who was abandoned and who has very recent memories of his mother you would want to get him into therapy for that. Childhood abandonment will fuck you up. It might make you feel you are not worthy of love which might manifest in, I don’t know, poor school performance or addiction. But they just dragged him to church with them right off the bat, like that’s going to help anyone, and then bemoaned their lot in their academic life. That was another thing – the Wilkersons are both professors at the local university and their whole relationship seems based on research and publishing and being very stereotypical elitist shits deep in some weird academia wankfest. It’s no wonder so many people hate liberal elites. If they were all like the Wilkersons, I’d hate liberal elites, too.
Anyway, I did like the book in general. There were a lot of great parts and vivid scenes. I got a glimpse of some elements of Chinese culture and the immigration experience, which was horrifying. No one should have to go through all that. I think it is an important book and feel that a lot of people need to read it. I just didn’t love it, and actively hated several characters.