This debut novel was heavily hyped, and you know how I feel about heavily-hyped books. It also won several prestigious literary awards when it first came out, which pushes reader expectations all the higher. That’s my disclaimer, so you probably know what’s coming next.
First, the good. Lisa Ko writes an exquisite sentence. Her images are fresh. She knows her subject matter and paints it for the reader in vivid strokes. I can open to any single page and find something to admire. She describes individual details of the immigrant experience with great sensitivity and skill.
My trouble was with the whole. I want my award winners to have it all – not just prize-winning form but a prize-winning gestalt. For me, the latter was missing here. The plot left me wanting. Same with the character development. Deming Guo and his mother, Polly, seemed less tied to their Chinese heritage as simply suffering the angst of people everywhere who can’t find their place in the world. Polly made one bad decision after another, and her son, though far distant physically from her, does the same – which isn’t reason to dislike a book. But if I’m recommending books for something more than intellectual satisfaction, emotional satisfaction has to play a role. There were only germs of redemption here, only small signs of growth. By the end of the book, I felt I’d been spinning my wheels, going nowhere.
Ironically, those exquisite sentences didn’t help. There were just too many. I felt the book was over-written. Likewise, some of the themes – Deming’s music, Polly’s wanderings – dragged on way too long.
Prior to the publication of this book, Lisa Ko was known for writing articles for newspapers and magazines. And I repeat; she does write an exquisite sentence. For that reason alone, if she has a second book in her, I would be interested.