The Leavers by Lisa Ko ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  352

Published:  May 2, 2017

Format:  Audiobook

Awards: National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2017), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction & for Debut Goodreads Author (2017), PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (2016)

 

Stunning, emotionally charged, socially critical novel about a young female Chinese woman and her American born son.  This novel tackles so much and does it well.  It takes place in China as well as in America.  The voice alternates from first person perspective of Peilan Guo and third person perspective of her son, Deming.

Peilan, fled China young and pregnant, in hopes of escaping the boy who impregnated her as well as the pregnancy, only to find she was a few weeks past 7 months and termination would be illegal.  Her son Deming is born and she falls in love with him, but finds there is no way to work with him alongside of her.   So, like so many other Chinese refugees, she sends her son home to live with her father until he is of age to go to school.  He returns at age 6 and finds himself living with his mother, her boyfriend Leon, Leon’s sister Vivian and Vivian’s son Michael.  It’s crowded and they are poor, but there is noise, friendship, sarcasm, and love aplenty.  Peilan and Deming play fun games with each other like choosing similar looking people to themselves to be their doppelgängers.  They create a whole story around this pair.  Michael and Deming are the best of friends.  Like brothers, they understand each other and look out for each other.

One day, Peilan goes to the nail salon where she works and she never returns.  This comes on the heels of an argument with Leon about her wanting to move to Florida and Leon not liking the idea.  No one knows where she has gone and it remains a mystery until the end of the novel.  Leon disappears, leaving for China, 6 months later.  Vivian is left alone with both Michael, Deming and Peilan’s enormous debt.  The money is tight, there is little food and she is very stressed.  She ends up putting Deming in foster care and then signing him over for permanent placement.

Deming is fostered and then adopted by Kay and Peter and life in Ridgeborough, NY is stale and seemingly lonely.  They change Deming’s name to Daniel, saying it will be easier for him that way.  He makes friends with Roland, a fellow musician who is Hispanic, so also seen as a “different” in this very Caucasian town.  Kay and Peter both work at the University, have no friends in town and have strong ideas about what their son should do and be as he grows up.

The novel takes off from this point, as Daniel struggles with his identity.  At the same time his mother, now Polly, has a completely new identity in China.  Daniel’s life comes to an unravelling point as he makes poor choices with gambling and alcohol, seeming to purposely self-sabatoge.  Michael emails him, and after hesitating to respond, he reconnects with Michael which leads him ultimately to his mother.  He finally learns the truth about his mother, how the salon was raided and she spent 18 months in a detention camp prior to being deported.

I felt like I connected with the characters, found the novel incredibly engaging and I enjoyed the historical aspects and learning about the immigrant experience from this perspective.  Although extremely well done overall, there were a couple of holes in the story I didn’t quite believe.  First, I wondered why no one ever went to the nail salon to learn what had happened.  Surely, someone must have known there.   I also wondered why Polly gave up on looking for Deming once she heard he had been adopted.  Yes, Leon felt that something inside Polly had broken, but she went from anguished over the loss to a new life very quickly.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How do name changes in this book affect or influence identity?
  2. Compare and contrast Deming’s relationship with his mother versus his relationship with Kay and Peter.
  3. How does the author portray international adoption in this novel?  How does she portray transracial adoption?
  4. What sorts of prejudice do Polly and Daniel experience in America?
  5. What roles do music and gambling play in Daniel’s identity?
  6. Discuss the parental expectations that Daniel experiences from Kay and Peter.  How does this compare to what he experienced with his own mother?
  7. Why do the school systems in both New York and Ridgeborough seem to have low expectations of Daniel?
  8. Discuss the friendship between Daniel and Angel.  Why do they become so close?
  9. When Polly and Leon are gambling, Polly feels that life is a game.  How is this a theme in the book?
  10. This novel brings up very real concerns regarding for profit detention centers.  Discuss the concerns addressed by this novel. Under current administration, these detention centers are increasing in number.  What effect do you imagine the current administration’s policies will have regarding these institutions?
  11. How do you explain or interpret the character Polly and her many life transitions?

 

New York Times Review by Gish Jen

Atlantic Review by Amy Weiss-Meyer

Discussion Questions by Lit Lovers

Interview with Lisa Ko in Hyphen Magazine

4 thoughts on “The Leavers by Lisa Ko ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide”

Leave a Reply