Reviewed by: Jennifer Chretien, Reference Librarian
Rating: 4.5 stars
Deming Guo's mother, Polly, is his whole world. When she doesn't return home from work one day he insists that she will be back for him. Meanwhile, he is left under the care of her boyfriend, Leo, and Leo's sister Vivian. Until the day Leo packs up and leaves and it is just Deming, Vivian, and Vivian's son. Not long later, Vivian announces she can't afford to care for Deming. Now a ward of the state, Deming becomes a foster child to college professors in upstate New York and renamed "Daniel". In this new chapter in life, Deming loses his family, his language, his name, and his entire identity. Meanwhile, Polly is also struggling with forced changes in her life a world away. Will they find each other again? Will Deming forgive her for abandoning him years before?
The Leavers is a wonderfully crafted work about the complications of family but also the struggle to maintain your sense of self and cultural identity when everything changes around you. Deming is stuck in the middle trying to navigate who he is despite the pressures placed on him by his adoptive family. Is he still Deming? Does he abandon his Chinese identity and become the person his parents want him to be? Or does he risk losing their respect by pursuing his own desires? Should he try to find his mother? Or does he face the fact that he has been left behind and she is gone from his life? It's a struggle many Chinese adoptees face and Ko does a wonderful job portraying the pain and confusion that can come with this balancing act. None of the characters here are blameless, but none of them are villains either. Life is messy and complicated. Lisa Ko is masterful at portraying complicate and endearing characters that make you want to both hug them and shake them.
If you enjoy Amy Tan and books about complicated families, you will enjoy The Leavers. Even if that is not your typical read, this is a good selection if you want to increase your reading diversity. Don't just take my word for it. The Leavers was a short list selection for the Goodreads Choice Award, and was long listed for this year's National Book Award.