Monday, February 10, 2014

The Year She Left Us

Tolstoy observed in his classic "Anna Karenina" that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Lately, I have been inundated with stories of unhappy families. I'm afraid that I had to give a less than stellar review to "Pioneer Girl," a forthcoming novel from Bich Minh Nguyen which surprised me with what I felt were too many stereotypes of the Asian-American immigrant family, in this case, Vietnamese.

But then I received an advanced copy of Kathryn Ma's "The Year She Left Us," which will be out in May, and I was delighted.

Yes, Ms. Ma writes of another unhappy family, Chinese-American this time, but the narrative just swept me up. In two days I became acquainted with the Kongs, and though I never fully understood their dynamic, I felt empathy for their struggle. Four strong women, extremely different personalities, mothers and daughters, caught between the present and the past, compete for our ear as alternating chapters reflect the views of each. It's Charlie, younger sister of Les, a California court judge who has difficulty leaving her robes at work, who's the catalyst for the action when she decides to adopt a baby from China.

Charlie is the bleeding heart of the bunch, a single lawyer who works within the court system, specializing in patching broken families back together. Her love for her newly adopted daughter, Ari, is immediate and visceral and her disapproving family soon falls into line. Ari is showered with attention from her doting Aunt Les and her imperious Grandmother Kong, while Charlie does all the right things, following advice books to the tee, never letting Ari forget where she came from. But Charlie is so intent upon being the perfect adoptive mom that she fails to notice that Ari is slipping away from her. After Charlie and Ari travel to China with a large group of American adoptees, visiting the orphanage where Ari had been abandoned as a newborn, Ari begins to spiral completely and inexplicably out of control.

Kathryn Ma manages to take us inside Charlie's suffering as her daughter rejects her, running away, refusing to communicate, in her bid to find herself. Unwanted advice comes from every quarter, especially from Charlie's perfect older sister Les (though she's never raised a child of her own), causing a rift that will take years to heal. But Charlie is no stranger to loss and she's wise enough to know that she can't cage Ari. She courageously allows her daughter the freedom to flounder and, in so doing, learns much about her own strength and that of her inscrutable mother as well.

This is a poignant look at one family, informed by its Chinese culture. It doesn't pretend to speak for all or to generalize. Themes of abandonment, self-loathing, and an inability to assimilate would normally indicate a depressing read, but somehow Ms. Ma's talent lifts this story above the typical dysfunctional family genre to something hopeful and redemptive. Look for it soon.

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