The Leavers – Lisa Ko

30753987One day, Deming Guo’s mother doesn’t come home. Did she go to Florida, as she said she’d hoped to? Did she find a new boyfriend and marry him? Is she dead somewhere – like out of a CSI show – as her son wonders? Lisa Ko’s The Leavers takes its time solving the mystery of her disappearance, as we instead follow Deming’s journey from the Bronx to a suburban town upstate. There, Deming becomes Daniel Wilkinson – a new name that comes with two well-meaning but ignorant white foster parents.

Ko’s novel follows two generations attempting to broach borders, those between countries and those between people. Deming is irrevocably changed by the mystery of his mother’s absence. As an adult, he is feckless and unmoored, despite repeated attempts by his foster parents to mold him into the ideal professor’s son. As the novel progresses, we switch to the viewpoint of Deming’s fiercely independent and ambitious mother. Here is where Ko’s story really takes off. Her portrait of Deming’s mother, Polly Guo, is always engaging and never veers off into the trite. Determined to maintain agency over her own life, Polly manages to be thoughtful and fierce even when constrained by faceless bureaucracies and impossible circumstances.

As the novel progresses, we switch to the viewpoint of Deming’s fiercely independent and ambitious mother. Here is where Ko’s writing really shines. Her portrait of Deming’s mother, Polly Guo, is always engaging and never veers off into the trite – a potentially difficult task when telling the story of someone who came from such modest beginnings.  Determined to maintain agency over her own life, Polly remains thoughtful and fierce even when constrained by faceless bureaucracies and impossible circumstances.

If there’s one complaint to be made about The Leavers, it’s that I could have spent a few more chapters with Polly (and, perhaps, Polly’s father, who gets frustratingly little characterization, but who I remain curious about).

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

The Girls – Emma Cline

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Lyrical and deadly, much like its historical inspiration, The Girls unfolds from the memories of a former member of a Manson Family-like cult, Evie. She starts to reminisce about her wayward summer when sharing a beach house with two teenagers who are (understandably) fascinated by her past. By framing her novel this way, Emma Cline casts a light back onto the reader, who undoubtedly shares the morbid fascination with the murderous cult.

So unfolddt.common.streams.StreamServers a story about losing oneself. Cline’s novel becomes an untraditional ‘coming-of-age’ where innocence isn’t so much lost as it is slowly siphoned away by a calculating predator. She peels away the gritty, movie-like glamor with which many see the Manson family and often narrows in on banal details: the food they were eating, the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of the rooms, sleeping arrangments.

Cline resists the urge to make our protagonist a sticky sweet ingenue who deserves our pity and instead paints a more nuanced picture of a girl without roots. Rather than fall into the thrall of the Charles Mason-like-leader (dubbed Russell) she is under the spell of the enigmatic and seemingly carefree women who surround him. Reading the book, I recalled a long-rehashed conversation from my college days, in which a guy friend wondered aloud about women’s fashion, pointing out that it took very little in the way of fashion prowess to impress men. This prompted a lively debate. Women didn’t get dressed to impress men, the girls of the group insisted, they got dressed to impress other women. To date, I think there is a lot of truth to this statement. Who better to accept judgment from than a group of our peers?

Despite its grisly inspiration, The Girls never waded quite as deep as I’d wanted it to. The real Manson, in addition to being charming, was also sadistic and vicious; this is never fully explored. Nor so are child neglect and the cruelty of his followers. But that Cline captures an enigmatic world and weaves transfixing tale, there can be no doubt.

Out – Natsuo Kirino

This one is not for the faint of heart. The novel introduces a constellation of characters at the start, and it is difficult to see how they are all going to fit toget25365her. But fit together they do, as each plays a role in the covering of a brutal murder.

Less mystery and more thriller, Out almost reads like a journalistic expose. I never got the sense that the author wanted to me to root for any particular character, and she wasn’t shy about introducing unflattering elements – a lot of the point-of-view characters are ones that most of us would be unwilling to call friends. In many ways, the hard-to-identify-with characters became the most interesting. [Author] does an excellent job teasing out motivations and painting a picture of an often bleak and depressing Tokyo.

Out’s Tokyo is less a futuristic and culinary wonderland, and more of a bleak automaton, chugging along only due to the efforts of struggling working class people. I really enjoyed Kirino’s strengths for creating atmosphere, and her willingness to embrace some pessimism rather than attempt to staple on happy endings for all the characters.

It is a relatively hefty book. (The copy I obtained from the library clocked in at about 500 pages.) That disclaimer aside, I poured through this one like water – it was gripping and I never lost momentum.

Cracking India – Bapsi Sidhwa

I did this one backward: I saw the movie first. Earth, the gorgeous interpretation by Deep Mehta, left a deep impression after I saw it in college. Thus, Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel has been on my list for many years, although the tragic subject matter caused me to procrastinate.

Unsurprisingly, I’m glad I finally picked it up. Sidhwa has a distinct writing style: frank and youthful. The setting is Lahore before the portion of India, and the narrator is an inquisitive and happy-go-lucky Parsee girl named Lenny. Because of her age, the reader often finds themselves trying to push back the curtain of Lenny’s naïveté to see what’s really going on with the adult characters that surround her. Ultimately, it is not Lenny who provides the dramatic tension in the story, but her ayah, a beautiful Hindu woman who has enchanted the men of the neighborhood.

1C0CFFFF-84B4-4E47-9CC5-55453B1D4582A love triangle unfolds as political and religious tensions start to boil over, leading to betrayal and tragedy. As with The Devotion of Suspect X, unrequited love is a major theme and you come to sympathize with the character who, in the hands of a less thoughtful writer, might be the “bad guy”.
However, the historical basis for Cracking India renders it more impactful, and a book worthy of a later rereading.
(I re-watched the film after finishing the book and am happy to say that it held up well.)

Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel


Like Water for Chocolate, the first novel by Laura Esquivel starts with onions and a birth. Chopping onions, that bring about a wave of tears. This opening is apt because the entirety of the novel weaves together food and emotions.

For me, this is actually a re-reading. My copy is a stolen one, taken from a beach house my family stayed in one spring, probably after I’d finished all the mystery novels I’d brought down with me. I’m not sure why I grabbed it. Maybe I gravitated toward the cheery cover, or perhaps the moderate size. Still, I’m glad I did. Because once I started reading, I was fully sucked in.

Like Water for Chocolate was my first intro to magical realism, now one of my favorite storytelling tools. Tita de la Graza, our passionate protagonist, finds her home in the kitchen of her family’s large Mexican ranch. Nurtured by the stove from a young age, she connects with flavors and food in a way that most people only dream of. She also wins the heart of Pedro Muzquiz, a boy from their neighborhood and is heartbroken when she is told by her mother that they can never wed, due to the family tradition of the youngest daughter having to stay home and take care of her mother as she ages.

Pedro, unable to bear the idea of being separate from Tita, marries her sister Rosura instead, turning the ranch into a hotbed of love, lust, jealousy and heartache.

Tita’s haven is her kitchen and her artistry is in cooking, so the food she makes is imbued with the emotions she feels. Heartbroken, and her cake will make you sick. Lustful, and her meal causes one of her sisters to run away with a rebel.

Like_Water_for_Chocolate_(Book_Cover)No – the story is not particularly realistic. The emotions are sweeping and devastating in their fury, the love is steadfast and unchanging…and I’m fairly certain it’s impossible to make hundreds of partygoers sick just because you were sad when you made the cake batter.

The rich emotions give the novel a timeless, mythic feeling.

Nonetheless, Esquivel uses these grand, almost operatic turns of phrase to tug at the reader’s heart. For don’t we all know that feeling?

I had been meaning to reread this book for years (tellingly, unlike so many others, this one has never been donated or lent away). The setting and culture, particularly the food, are undeniably impactful on the story, but overall it’s a story about love, longing and the confounding ties and responsibilities that come with family: universal feelings, to be sure.