Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Chinese Adoption Tale Needs Something More

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I'm not sure quite how to describe The Year She Left Us, a debut novel by Kathryn Ma, so I'm going to take the lazy way out and give you the official plot summary:
The Kong women are in crisis.  A disastrous visit to her "home" orphanage in China has plunged eighteen-year-old Ari into a self-destructive spiral.  Her adoptive mother, Charlie, a lawyer with a great heart, is desperate to keep her daughter safe.  Meanwhile, Charlie must endure the prickly scrutiny of her beautiful, Bryn Mawr-educated mother, Gran—who, as the daughter of a cultured Chinese doctor, came to the United States to survive Mao's revolution—and her sister, Les, a brilliant judge with a penchant to rule over everyone's lives.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         As they cope with Ari's journey of discovery and its aftermath, the Kong women will come face-to-face with the truths of their lives—four powerful intertwining stories of accomplishment, tenacity, secrets, loneliness, and love.  Beautifully illuminating the bonds of family and blood, The Year She Left Us explores the promise and pain of adoption, the price of assimilation and achievement, the debt we owe to others, and what we owe ourselves.  Full of pathos and humor, featuring a quartet of unforgettable characters drawn from real life, it marks the debut of an important new voice in American fiction.    
As you can probably tell, plot is not something this novel has in abundance.  The story relies on the strength of its characters—not just their individual conflicts, but also the vibrancy of their separate and distinct voices. While the Kong women offer this, to some extent, the fact is, none of them are very likable.  Interesting, yes; engaging enough to want to know better?  Not so much.  This, combined with the novel's weak plotting; caustic tone; and disjointed storytelling made for a disappointing read.  Truth is, I put The Year She Left Us down several times, with no intention of finishing the book.  I did complete it, but, in the end, I found it dull and depressing.  I'm not saying Ma can't write.  She can.  It's just that this particular story needed something more—like a plot—to pull it all together.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, sexual content, depictions of illegal drug use, and violence

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Year She Left Us from the generous folks at Harper Collins.  Thank you!

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