“Go on a journey” or “a stranger comes to town:” many great stories seem to be about one or the other. Kathryn Ma’s debut novel, The Year She Left Us (Harper Collins) is about both. Ari (full name: Ariadne Bettina Yun-li Rose Kong), an 18-year-old adoptee at the breaking point of a lifelong identity crisis, travels to China and Alaska in search of — well, she’s not quite sure. She turns over a few stones, looking for something — her culture, her home, her father — and, as these journeys often go (in fiction and in life), she ends up uncovering some hard truths about herself in the process.
The story is woven together in short chapters, each from the point of view of one of the Kong women: Gran, who moved to the United States from China in her early 20s; her daughters Charlie and Lesley; and Ari, born in China and adopted by Charlie as a baby. With Ari at the story’s center, her chapters, with their first person narration, feel the most vibrant.
Charlie and Les’s third person chapters, in comparison, lack the same urgency. Multiple scenes give the reader an intimate understanding of the sisters’ professional lives (Charlie is a lawyer, Les a judge), which are marginally interesting but distract from the central themes of the novel. Perhaps they were included to round the characters out, to show that women’s lives are more than their relationships. It’s a nice impulse, but not necessary — the relationships are rich and troubled enough to carry the story on their own.
Most of the pivotal scenes between Charlie and Ari happen in flashback, when Ari was younger. In one such scene, preadolescent Ari expresses her desire to attend Hebrew school with her friends. Her friends are adoptees from China, just like her. Going to Hebrew school makes sense for them because their families are Jewish. Ari belongs to the Kong family, Charlie explains. She finds herself running low on her usual patience, her willingness to allow her daughter to try on different identities to see what fits. “Give this life a try,” she pleads. “Stop looking, for once, for a better family to join. I’m trying my hardest, and you need to start trying, too. There isn’t anything better out there. This is the family you’ve got.”
The middle of the book, when Ari goes off to Alaska on a wild goose chase to track down a mysterious father figure — is the most engaging section. With the groundwork laid in the opening chapters, we’re ready to get down to the business of thrusting the character in a predicament that forces her to wrestle with her problems. In her own rebellious way, Ari is doing what her family has always wanted her to do: live in the present and stop obsessing over her life’s rocky beginnings. As her grandmother says, “Why nurse the pain of the past? You’re better off walking away. There is nothing to be done about it. Some things you must abandon.” What Gran and her mother don’t understand is that, as Ari puts it, “When everything you love is yours at the present moment, you live in constant fear of losing it.” As an adoptee, the present — her pleasant life with Charlie in San Francisco — hasn’t ever felt like it really belonged to her.
The Year She Left Us is like the sarcastic little sister of other well-known Chinese American mother-daughter stories like The Joy Luck Club and The Woman Warrior. The three generations of Kong women all have complicated — but hazy — connections to China. I imagine some of the novel’s views on international adoption — and the conflicted feelings of the adoptees — will upset some readers. The novel asserts that despite the good (if naïve) intentions parents have of preserving and nurturing their children’s cultural identities, kids are bound to grow up with some confusion and feelings of displacement. Ari is always on a journey, a stranger wherever she goes — an apt (if cynical) metaphor for her identity as an adoptee. It sounds dark, but the novel offers some rays of hope through the clouds. You can leave home, and you can find it again, too.
Image: Andria Lo