Lisa Ko’s The Leavers is a book that’s deeply admirable, with so much about it to recommend, from the fact of its changed perspectives to its topical themes. Moreover, it is the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and clearly Barbara Kingsolver saw the beauty present in Ko’s writing to hand her the award.
It’s just not a very fun read.
Two stories written simultaneously can be difficult in any genre, but with a switched perspective from son to mother (the motif of “leavers” is repeated often), makes for a difficult transition, and saps some of the sense of mystery.
Part one of the book focuses on the perspective on Deming Guo, who lives in New York, specifically The Bronx with Polly, his mother, who one day up and disappears. Fast forward to later, in which Deming Guo has become Daniel Wilkinson, adopted and finding his life without a clear direction. The story starts off as a sort of mystery, (why did his mother, well, leave?) and then it becomes clear Daniel himself is something of a Leaver as well. Since he has not one clear name and not one clear identity, he is leaving himself. Then when the perspective is flipped in part two, the reader learns about Polly’s story, where she came from in China and seeks to resolve the questions that were left hanging in part one.
While the payoff is satisfying and understandable and brings a sense of closure, the book itself doesn’t just seem to end without a final salvo and I reread the two final pages to see if I had missed something (I hadn’t). Also, the tone of the first half suggested that there would be some sort of device that made the story seem like a thriller, but it was more readable than thrilling. I didn’t have any trouble getting through The Leavers and while I continue to admire it greatly, I would have little desire to go back and read it again, or recommend the novel reading experience as anything other than “just alright”.
The Leavers was provided by Thomas Allen & Son in exchange for an honest review. It may be purchased from your friendly independent bookseller or other fine bookstores.