Book Review: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

4/5 Stars.

“Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days.”

Finding one’s place in the world is hard enough for anyone, but it’s especially challenging for Deming. Abandoned by his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, at the age of 11, Deming is then adopted by a well-meaning older American couple who change his name to Daniel and lay out clear expectations about the path his life will follow.

Once Deming reaches young adulthood, he’s understandably plagued by the circumstances of his life. Not only does he lack a true sense of identity and purpose, but he can’t let go of the memories of his mother and why she left him.

After getting in touch with an old friend, Deming finds a lead on his mother’s whereabouts, and this further disrupts his aimless life.

The Leavers is told from the perspective of both Deming and his mother, Polly, giving the reader the opportunity to understand both of these characters. Gradually, we learn the truth about why Polly left Deming—and it turns out it’s more complicated than it originally appeared.

One of the things I appreciate most about this novel is that there are no easy judgments or convictions to be reached about the characters. They are flawed, they make bad decisions, they hurt each other. And yet they are each deserving of empathy. Life is complicated, and not everything can be neatly categorized as right or wrong. Sometimes things just are what they are, and we do what we can to keep moving forward.

This is, for the most part, a compelling character-driven novel that ranks somewhere in the middle of the immigration literature from the past few years. There are times when the dialogue is stilted, the pacing off, and the transitions from Deming’s to Polly’s perspective too abrupt, but the themes of belonging and reckoning with one’s past are handled with the complexity they deserve.

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