Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Review: The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma

I have several friends who have adopted their daughters from China. In fact adoptions from China to the US comprise the largest portion of international adoptions hands down, not surprising when you look at the combination of China's one child policy and their general willingness to allow foreign adoptions. And although I imagined that it could be difficult for adoptive parents to keep their daughters connected to their cultural heritage, I never imagined a huge sense of disconnect for the children as portrayed here in Kathryn Ma's debut novel, The Year She Left Us.

Ari Kong is 18 and she has just suffered a breakdown after spending time working for a friend's mother giving "heritage tours" to American families with daughters adopted from China. Ari herself was adopted as a baby by Charlie, a first generation Chinese-American woman, and had been on one of these tours herself to see the land of her birth and the orphanage where she lived so theoretically she would have been the perfect choice to lead these tours for others. But ever since her own initial visit back to China, Ari has been consumed with the thought that she was disposable, thrown away by her birth parents, unwanted.

The Kong family is one of all women. Gran, who fled China to escape Mao's rule, is twice widowed and even though her daughters are adults, she still holds sway over them. She's independent and opinionated and she was adamantly opposed to Charlie's plan to adopt as a single mother, fearing that the child would be of inferior stock to her own family. Charlie is a kind and gentle person, a public defender who finds herself getting personally wrapped up in the fate of her clients and is completely at a loss as to how to handle her suddenly prickly and combative daughter. Charlie's older sister Les is a judge who yearns to be appointed to the federal circuit. Like Charlie, she is also unmarried but where Charlie is softer and more of a pushover, Les is harder, a stickler and always conscious of her position as a role model. As different as these women are, each of them harbors a secret, one that burrows into her very core and helps to define who she is as a woman. And this is the family to which Ari belongs.

But Ari is broken and searching, without regard to the family standing behind her. She is unlike the other Whackadoodles (the nickname given to her playgroup full of adopted Chinese daughters) in that she isn't the Asian child of white parents, her family being ethnically Chinese, and she wasn't adopted by a couple but instead by a single woman so she still feels different and an outsider in a whole different way than the other girls. Ari's abandonment issues drive her away from her mother, aunt, and grandmother and into a mysterious past that nearly breaks her. She is a wanderer and seeker who cannot find the answer to her questions. She is lost without knowing why. She shuts her family out as she tries to make sense of who she is both personally and culturally. And as Ari questions her existence, even traveling to Alaska for answers about a never before acknowledged father figure, Charlie and Les too search for the meaning in their lives and who they really are.

The story is told in narrating chapters with Ari and Gran telling their own stories in first person and Charlie and Les' perspectives being narrated in third person. The different narrations allow the reader to look at events from multiple perspectives.  Ari, around whom the entire story centers as the dominant character, is angry and lost and selfish. She is unpleasant and it is hard to want to read more about her created angst. Certainly growing up and hearing constantly how lucky she was to be adopted must have been hard but she shows no empathy for others in her life, no consideration for the love and kindnesses she is shown by both family and strangers. She is so wrapped up in her own bitterness and sense of injustice over her beginnings that she cannot see that her actions affect or hurt others. And she overwhelms the other characters so that their stories feel very tangential to the main plot. There is a distance to the narrative, a keep out sign, despite the changing narration that makes it hard to get into the story and keeps the reader from becoming too involved with any of the characters. The haunted darkness, guilt, and insecurity make this a depressing tale but even so it offers interesting insights into the international adoption process, the psychology behind it, the social issues that it can bring to the fore, and the way it can reverberate throughout so many lives.

For more information about Kathryn Ma and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. I will be reading this one soon. I wonder if the author went through similar experiences. Will have to look her up!

  2. Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  3. This sounds fascinating. Now to track the book down!


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