Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma

The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma: Ari Kong is an eighteen year old girl who was adopted from China by her Chinese-American mother, Charlie, when she was an infant. Raised in the San Francisco suburbs, Ari has always suffered from a sense of displacement even though her own adoptive mother is Chinese and she doesn't look as out of place in her own family as some of her fellow adoptees who were adopted by white families. This sense of displacement drives her back to China and the orphanage from which she was adopted where she begins a self-destructive spiral. Meanwhile, her mother, Charlie, worries about her daughter and wonders where the bubbly infant she brought home from China is - their relationship is now fraught with tension and resentment. In addition to concern over her daughter, Charlie is also coping with her own mother, Gran, who came to the US from China as the privileged daughter of a doctor and was educated at Bryn Mawr. Gran is disappointed by her daughter Charlie's choice to adopt from China, especially without a husband, and doesn't hold her tongue. Three generations of Kong women in crisis and unable to understand each other.

Ari Kong is in some ways a typical teenager  - she resists her mother's involvement in her life and shows her little respect. Her issues, however, are deeper and relate to her conflicted emotions about her adoption. She is desperate to know where she really came from and the story behind how she was left on the steps of a department store. The pain of knowing she was left and potentially not loved cannot be assuaged even by the knowledge that she was wanted by her adoptive mother who traveled to China to get her and poured herself into helping her daughter assimilate and ensuring she honored her Chinese heritage.

Gran is a prickly character who prides herself on her education and privileged background and how she elevated herself above other Chinese immigrants. Her goal for her own daughters was total assimilation - she gave them American names and did not celebrate Chinese holidays. She is inexplicably disappointed to learn her own daughter is going to China to adopt a girl - a baby with no history and who may come from poor and uneducated parents. She has been hardened by her own immigrant experience and can show no compassion or support to her daughter or granddaughter. She even rebuffs her daughter for crying when she met Ari and wishes her daughter could display her own stoic reserve

Charlie is the character caught in between - she is trapped between her mother and her daughter and receives understanding from neither. She seems to be sleepwalking through life - working long hours at her job as a public defender and coming home to the strife of a teenager in crisis. Her older sister, Les, also pushes Charlie around and tries to tell her what to do. Despite adopting a child, Charlie seems to have nothing that is hers - no intimate relationship with a man, no satisfaction or respect at work, and no support from her own family - most especially her daughter Ari.

My Thoughts
This book is told from alternating views - each chapter is told from one of the Kong women's point of view. As usual with this device, it is interesting to see how each looks at the same event since their perspectives are so different and they react to things so differently. The author expertly explores issues with international adoption and the process of assimilation. It is interesting to see how the effects of immigration reverberate through the generations of Kong women and demonstrates how much we are shaped by events even when we are not conscious of the impact and how it drives our behaviors.

Throughout the book, my sympathy went to Charlie - she is epitome of the "sandwich" generation and seems to have nothing satisfying her in her own life. She lives for to others - at work and at home - and seems lost. I did want to see some strength from Charlie and got frustrated at times with her passivity and her lack of fight. The book offers a fascinating exploration of family dynamics and how we never truly escape them.

You can read other's perspectives on the book at the TLC Tour Stops


  1. I love to read about family dynamics and adding another culture to the mix makes it even more fascinating. I'll have to look for this book.

  2. I've been wanting to read the one --I do like immigrant stories. Glad u enjoyed this Colleen.

  3. I've heard quite a bit about this one - all great. Definitely sounds like a dynamic read!

  4. What a great cover! I do love when the multiple narrators' stories overlap so that you're getting more than one side of the same events.

  5. Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  6. I read other good things about this book. Sounds interesting and maybe a bit like Amy Tan's first novel. thanks.