I really enjoyed this debut novel that combines courtroom drama with a moving story about a Korean-American family. Even better, the author is local and writes about a small town in Virginia that doesn’t exist but felt very real.
The Yoo family runs a a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, a submarine-like contraption that people sit in to breathe pure oxygen, which has healing qualities. As the book opens, a fire is lit under one of the tanks, causing an explosion that kills two people and seriously injures the others, including the Yoo’s teenage daughter Mary. It’s pretty clear the fire was deliberate. Was it the protesters, who want the parents of the autistic children to celebrate their children just as they are? Or was it the Yoo family, looking to cash in on fire insurance? Or was it one of the mothers, who just couldn’t take the stress of parenting an autistic child?
What’s fun about this rather grim story is that everyone is hiding something from their families and their closest friends. But author Kim goes deeper than that, on a few levels. She explores the stresses on the Yoo family; all three of them miss Korea and struggle to stay connected to each other in a new place. Like many immigrant families, they keep trying to get ahead, and yet they never seem to make it.
“In a way, he supposed, it was inevitable for immigrants to become child versions of themselves, stripped of their verbal fluency and, with it, a layer of their competence and maturity.”
Another layer of this story explores the issues faced by parents of special needs children. The three mothers in this story struggle to support each other, but at the same time they resent the parents whose kids are “easier.” Each of these women feel alone and stressed; they feel angry at the world and at the same time, they constantly feel guilty for not doing more.
I’m not a parent, but I’m deeply interested in this question of whether children on the spectrum have a disability or just have different strengths and weaknesses than other children. Some children are high-functioning and gifted, while others on the spectrum need therapeutic and educational services that are only available to children with disabilities. It’s a fierce debate and an interesting one (see this recent article for further discussion).
This book tells a deeply moving story (at times gut-wrenching) that also works as a page-turner. Kim does a nice job of gradually unfolding the secrets of each character. Kim makes every character in this story interesting and multi-dimensional, and I liked the way we see the characters from their own point of view as well as from the other characters. Each of the marriages in this story is complicated. No character is blame-free and most are sympathetic. In my view that’s the best kind of mystery.
I read this book for my book club, and we get to meet the author next week, since she’s local. Kim moved from Seoul, Korea, to Baltimore as a preteen, and attended Stanford University and Harvard Law School, and this is her first novel. I’m really looking forward to meeting her and discussing this book.