RAD Book Club review: The Leavers

11 Oct 2018

RAD Book Club’s first read in our fourth series was the novel The Leavers by Lisa Ko.

Set between China and the United States, the novel records the life experiences of a boy growing up without his birth mother and a mother learning to live though the suffering of loss and separation. Eight of us met to talk about this book and consider its issues about abandonment and belonging, immigration and deportation.

Ko’s debut novel The Leavers narrates the lives of Deming/Daniel and of his mother Peilan/Polly. We read about her coming to America from China, having her son, working so hard, and losing him. We also read about Deming growing up, being left with foster parents and later adopted, while struggling to find his place in the world. Chapters alternate to present the current condition of the main characters and the events which led to that situation. A sense of abandonment, rejection and struggle grows as the reader advances through the book.

Most of us liked the novel very much and the group gave it an average score of 7/10. However, many of us also found fault with aspects of the book. Some thought that the novel was difficult to read and that the characterisations were either irritating, too simple or just unappealing. For instance, the first part of the book felt a bit tentative and the character of Deming/Daniel appeared self-destructive, spoilt and overindulged, although someone mentioned that that could serve to highlight the parenting style of his adoptive parents. We also saw how hard it must be to capture the psychology of a child who had been put into care and later adopted. Because of this, most of us agreed that the mother’s side of the story was far more interesting and nuanced than Deming/Daniel’s story.

On that note, we mentioned the lack of discussion in the book about the adoption process and were shocked that there was no issue with regards the child’s wellbeing. This made us question whether the book intended to deal with adoption issues at all or whether that was just another strategy to portray issues to do with belonging and family relations. Following from that, a few would have liked a section dealing with Kay and Peter Wilkinson’s motivation for adopting and their parenting style. We felt they were merely used as a comparison and thought their insistence for Daniel to go to college or to go back home seemed unreasonable and was not well developed. We also asked ourselves whether Deming/Daniel felt comfortable with his adoptive family and how he negotiated issues regarding familiarity and strangeness.

A few of us found the structure of the book, with changes in time and place and names, quite confusing but we felt that, as readers, we were led to reach certain conclusions about the characters only to find our opinions contradicted later in the book. For instance, we do not discover whether our belief about why Peilan/Polly left her son is correct until a long way into the novel. This taught some of us that we could be too quick to jump to conclusions.

Many episodes of the book were quite moving and sad, even harrowing, especially those in Peilan/Polly’s narrative. These moments, contrasted drastically with parts of the book from Deming/Daniel’s point of view and made them seem self-centred and trivial. Worse still, because perhaps we haven’t found out enough about some of the characters, some of us felt some episodes were quite cringeworthy, particularly regarding Deming’s adoptive parents or about his relationship with Angel.

At the conclusion of the novel, most of us appreciated that neither mother nor son decided to do what was expected of them. Faced with the question to stay in China with his mother or back with his adoptive parents, Deming/Daniel chose a third option. Likewise, Peilan/Polly would remain in the comfort of her marriage and nice house. We debated what her possible motivation for that could have been, and suggested she either wanted to keep moving to avoid the pain of another separation, in this case from her husband, of as a way to leave another chapter of the life behind.

We decided that the novel was as much about abandonment and separation, belonging and strangeness, as it was about disadvantage, struggle, loss and rejection.