Sunday, May 14, 2017

Book Review: "The Leavers" by Lisa Ko

The Leavers by Lisa Ko is utterly exquisite. This book about two different people's struggle between doing what is right, what people want and expect them to do, and what they want to do, is tremendously moving and powerful. As the title suggests, it's both a story of those who leave and the effect on those who are left.

Deming Guo is 11 years old. He's being raised by his mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, and they live in a crowded Bronx apartment with Polly's boyfriend, his sister, and his nephew, who is Deming's surrogate brother. Polly wants more than her exhausting job at a nail salon—she wants the opportunity to make more money and not kill herself in the process. Deming wants his mother to be around more yet he wants her to have the money to give him what he wants.

One day, Polly leaves for her job, and never returns. At first, no one is exactly sure where she went. Did she go to Florida to pursue a better job opportunity, and she'll send for Deming when she gets on her feet? But if that's the case, why hasn't she gotten in touch with anyone? Deming doesn't understand why his mother has left him, and bargains with himself constantly that if he does better in school, is nicer to his peers, Polly will return. But she doesn't.

When the burden of caring for Deming becomes too much to bear for those left behind, he becomes the foster child of an older couple, Peter and Kay, both college professors, and they convince him that to better adjust and assimilate with his peers in upstate New York, he should change his name to Daniel. Daniel has a great deal of trouble adjusting, however, something that causes Peter and Kay a great deal of difficulty, since they aren't sure if they're even suited to be parents anyway. But still, they adopt Daniel, and pressure him to buckle down academically.

The Leavers follows Daniel as he grows into a rudderless young man, torn between wanting to pursue his own dreams and wanting to please his parents, or he's afraid they'll leave him as his mother did. It also traces Daniel's struggles to understand what happened to his mother and deciding if he should try and follow some leads that might have presented themselves to him. The book also follows Polly from her childhood in China to the day she disappeared, and outlines the difficult choices she is forced to make.

Ko's storytelling is truly breathtaking, as she has created two characters who capture your heart and will stay in your memory. Neither character is 100 percent admirable, and at times their actions are frustrating, but you understand their struggles and feel for them. And while some of the other characters may make decisions that anger or frustrate, you see that they're also very complex, no matter how much time they're in the book.

I absolutely loved this book, and read the entire thing in one sitting while on a plane. I was moved, I was blown away, I wanted to shake the characters and make them act or say the thing that might move things forward, and ultimately, I was sad when I was done. I cannot wait to see what's next for Lisa Ko, because this was one hell of a book.


  1. Noticed that you're reading At The Edge of the Universe I enjoyed that one