This is a really thoughtful, moving novel about a Chinese family that is torn apart in the United States. Peilan grows up in China in a small village but dreams of exploring the world, so she travels to New York for factory work at better wages. She has Deming while still very young herself, and while she loves him, she’s barely able to care for him.
When Deming is in the fifth grade, Peilan disappears without a trace; she just doesn’t come home from her job at a nail salon. Deming is left with his mother’s boyfriend Leon, Leon’s sister, and her son Michael. They call Immigration but learn nothing. Deming grows up never knowing if his mother abandoned him, and if so, why.
The book is told mostly from Deming’s perspective as an adult. Losing his mother in such a horrible way leaves him insecure and unable to focus on what he wants, which is above all a career in music. He has problems with school and develops a gambling addiction. Most of all, he won’t let himself get close to anyone else.
The strength of this book lies in the powerful relationship established between Peilan and Deming from the very first pages, even though they spend little time together. This part in the first chapter made laugh (I love everything bagels) but it’s also a perfect illustration of their relationship.
He would have her to himself, an ambling walk in the park or along the river, making up stories about who lived in the apartments they saw from the outside – a family named Smith, five kids, father dead, mother addicted to bagels, he speculated the day they went to the Upper East Side. “To bagels?” she said. “What flavor bagel?” “Everything bagels,” he said, which made her giggle harder, until they were both bent over on Madison Avenue, laughing so hard no sounds were coming out, and his stomach hurt but he couldn’t stop laughing, old white people giving them stink eye for stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Deming and his mother loved everything bagels, the sheer balls of it, the New York audacity that a bagel could proclaim to be everything, even if it was only topped with sesame seeds and poppy seeds and salt.
I appreciated this book for all of its layers. It’s about Chinese culture and living as an outsider in America; it’s about the perils of immigration; but mostly it’s about family and identity. Everyone will be able to relate to some aspect of this book. I found the issues of identity most interesting. Both Deming and Peilan go by two names, one Chinese and one American (Daniel and Polly). This division between their “Chinese self” and “American self” is fascinating because it’s so complex. Peilan, for example, chooses different identities throughout her life. Deming, on the other hand, has this divide forced on him and grows up feeling torn in pieces. There’s his Chinese life, his Chinese-American life with his mother in New York, and then his life in a white family, and mostly white neighborhoods and schools after he goes into foster care. He’s also torn between his love of music, and his foster parents’ desire for him to finish school and have a respectable career. Mostly he’s torn between feeling betrayed by his mother and Leon, and missing them desperately. He needs to know what happened, but he’s also afraid to know, and the people around him keep advising him to let it be.
If Deming wasn’t really screwed up, this book wouldn’t be believable. At the same time, I think the weakness in this book is that Deming is hard to like, and at times you really want to give up on him. He makes bad decisions and hurts the people around him. It’s like he’s in this fog and just won’t take control of his life, which at times made me want to shake him.
The characters in this book are really interesting, especially Deming’s mother. Sometimes her narrative rambles a bit, but she’s a fascinating mix of strength, selfishness, ambition, and love. She’s never idealized or romanticized; she can be tough, loud, demanding, but she’s always her own person. At times the foster parents come off as a bit one-dimensional, but I think that reflects the way Deming views them. He describes the wall he’s erected to keep from caring too much, and this means their relationship is basically one-sided. They give, and he seems to give just enough back to be what they want him to be, but not enough to allow them to be a real family.
This is author Lisa Ko’s first novel. On her website, Ko describes herself as the first in her family to be born in the U.S. She grew up as “one of the only kids of color” in a New Jersey suburb. You can also find her interview about writing with Barbara Kingsolver.
This book reminded me of Commonwealth in terms of the complexity of its characters and the scope of the story, and in that it’s not overly emotional but still very moving. No one’s life is simple or easy, and everyone makes mistakes. It’s not an “us” versus “them” novel, but it is about how hard it can be for immigrants to make their lives in this country. It’s an important book to read right now, when immigration and deportation are so much a part of the everyday news.
Note: I received an advanced review copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Algonquin Books. This book was published May 2, 2017.