I wanted to like this book, but it just fell flat to me. I found one of the protagonists totally exasperating and so didn’t care what happened to her. That lack of emotional connection really affected my enjoyment of the novel.
Deming Guo was conceived in China, born in the United States, lived in China with his grandfather until the age of 6, and reunited with his mother Peilan (Polly) in the U.S. for 5 years until she suddenly disappeared. He is then placed in foster care and raised by two white academics who change his name to Daniel Wilkinson and try to inspire him to follow their version of the American Dream. He grows up to be a directionless young man who struggles with his identity. Then he decides to track down his mother and find the explanation to her disappearance.
Deming’s story is narrated in third person, but we are also given Peilan’s story in first person in what seems to be a journal written for her son. We learn about her coming to New York as a pregnant teenager and where she is in the present; only at the end are we given a complete understanding of how/why she disappeared and had no contact with her son.
I found Peilan an unlikeable character. I understand that she has a restless spirit and so struggles with “the challenge of staying put” and thinks of “the pinch of freedom” as a friend “when the walls start to come.” But her choices are so selfish! We are supposed to admire her fierce determination to get a better life, but she is really concerned only about a better life for herself. She takes pride in her “sacrifices”: “Look at all I’ve done. Look at all I’ve given up” though a friend scoffs at her by saying, “’A mother is supposed to sacrifice for her son, not the other way around.’” Peilan’s efforts to find her son seem half-hearted. For example, she doesn’t use her boyfriend Leon and his sister to help track down Deming! In fact, we are only told by her that she tried to find her son. Telling is definitely not as effective as showing. Her refusal to tell Yong about Deming, even though she had “always known” Yong would be accepting, reveals her self-centredness. And not once does she acknowledge how her choices have negatively impacted her son!
Peilan’s story about what happened after her disappearance is improbable. She can’t remember a phone number? No amount of searching by Leon reveals what happened to her? “Didi had called the police, Immigration, and they said there was no record of her”? And the melodrama of her narrative doesn’t have the desired effect of creating sympathy. After all, Ardsleyville is not a concentration camp, like she seems to want to suggest.
It’s not just Peilan’s selfishness that grates; it’s her hypocrisy. Instead of being grateful that her son was well looked after, she becomes angry that Deming “called an American woman Mom” though she admits she “had given up looking.” Her protestations just don’t ring true: “I didn’t leave on purpose. I loved you more than anyone. You could call another lady “Mama,” but I was your mama, not her. I knew I had forfeited the right to say that, but it was never going to change.” Peilan’s supposed fear of being abandoned and her comment that “Yong was staying, and I would stay, too” reveal her behaviour at the end to be totally hypocritical. We are to think of her as a strong person, but her typical behaviour is to leave, to escape, when things don’t go her way or she becomes bored. So the irony of a leaver being upset when she is forced to leave is over the top.
Deming earned more of my sympathy. He believes his mother abandoned him (and in many ways she did) so he becomes insecure and lonely: “He had lost so much, and he was lost” and he decides, “If he held everyone at arm’s length, it wouldn’t hurt as much when they disappeared.” As someone who looks Chinese but has an American name and white parents, he feels alienated: “He had eliminated the possibility of feeling out of place by banishing himself to no place.” There are times when his self-pitying behaviour becomes irritating, but his tendency to leave is a manifestation of his search to find where he does belong. Music gives him an emotional outlet and it is heartwarming that he does have something to help him with his emotional struggles, but the many repetitions of his synesthesia when listening to music are unnecessary, as are the details of his involvement with the music scene.
I had another major problem with Peilan’s sections. She seems to be writing her story for Deming, frequently addressing him directly, yet she includes passages that don’t seem appropriate. For example, “Once I trailed a man for five blocks, admiring how he walked with his crotch pointed forward like a dare” and “I daydreamed of removing a new man’s pants for the first time, how another man would move his hips against mine, if he would want it quick and hard or slow and sloppy.” A mother would describe her sexual desire to her son?
It can be argued that this book which addresses the difficulties faced by undocumented immigrants is timely, given the situation in the United States. I imagine this is the reason why the novel won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. I just wish the thematic development were done with more finesse.
Note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.