Our April book club selection was The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Winner of the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, the novel was also a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award. Although I chose the book last year to give us insight into immigration issues and to celebrate Asian Pacific Heritage Month (May), reading it in March as the world reacted to the new coronavirus with fear, loss, disbelief and even xenophobia was challenging.
The language was clear and easy to follow, but the time-line and perspective jumped around enough to keep me uncertain, at least at first, who, where and when the characters were. Was it the story and characters that disinterested me or the distraction of reading in the midst of what seemed to be a possible end to civilization as we know it? I had trouble liking either Polly or her son, although I appreciated their angst, their desire to control their own destiny, their need for something that is missing – a parent, a calling, relevancy. I identified more with the adoptive parents. I felt that their characters were treated shabbily, barely developed—shallow in comparison to the adoptive parents in our previous selections, TheTea Girl of Hummingbird Lane or Digging to America. In contrast, I very much admired Michael, Vivian, even Leon. Perhaps that was easier because we saw their final successes without living through their struggles.
Lisa Ko started writing The Leavers in 2009 after travelling to Fuzhou and researching immigration. She wanted to capture “the story behind the story, a tribute to heart, sweat, and grind.”[i]I think she succeeded in writing compelling fiction rather than political commentary. However, I would have liked more information about the detention centers. I find it horrifying that we would hold someone over a year in a detention center, with only minimal explanation, but the final reveal and explanation for Polly’s leaving was disappointing. Lisa Ko’s essay, “A Better Life,” has the same title as the 2011 film about an Hispanic-American immigrant father and son,[ii] a film we showed in our Second Sunday Movie Club and one I definitely recommend.
I know there is more I could discuss here, but I miss the community of our group. Often, when I am disappointed in a book, our members surprise me with a new perspective. They help me find what I didn’t know I liked. They teach me to be less critical or challenge me to defend my praise. As we are locked down in our homes, communicating by phones and computers, I miss the feel of energy in a room with people, kinetic, the haze through our overhead lights, even the anxiety of beginning.
Our next scheduled book is The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which has a huge list for the e-book. The downloadable audiobook is available through HOOPLA with your library card. I suggest, though, that we read something else and pass on the recommendation – more like a book circle. Keep notes on what you are reading – I want to hear about it!
Until we meet again . . .
[ii]https://lvccld.bibliocommons.com/item/show/1802331134 A Better Life (2011) Directed by: Chris Weitz, Cedric Kahn PG-13