In honor of National Adoption Day, November 22, I’m reviewing Kathryn Ma’s new novel The Year She Left Us.
China’s strict one-child policy and the cultural favor for sons resulted in a wave of Chinese girls being adopted by American families. As these daughters now reach adulthood en masse, it’s interesting to explore the worlds of these adopted families in literature. Kathryn Ma’s debut novel was inspired by seeing a group of adopted Chinese American girls on a tour of their city (and orphanage) or origin in China.
What makes Ari Kong, the 18-year-old main character of The Year She Left Us, so interesting is that she is raised by a Chinese American mother. The Kongs are a family of strong women, in which men are conspicuously absent. Growing up immersed in an Asian American home, and one in which her mother, aunt and grandmother are high-achieving and determined to fold her seamlessly into their “perfect” lives, Ari doesn’t go along with their plans. The story opens right after a disastrous coming of age visit to the Ari’s orphanage in China, along with the “wackadoodle” playgroup for adopted Chinese girls in the Bay Area. Ari’s narrative is both very specific to her unusual family circumstances and also the universal post-adolescent desire to seek and identity. For Ari, finding her roots includes both connecting with her Chinese origins, as well as going on a wild goose chase to find the “missing” father in her life.
There are also some underlying themes of interracial relationships and mixed-race heritage, with some surprises about the Kong family’s bloodline. Ari uncovers her mother, Charlie’s, secret past relationship with a white man. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that a Charlie’s sister, Les, also has a covert romance with a man of a different race. Quite a few of the characters are also Jewish, which could lead to some interesting conversations about the intersection of Jewish and Asian culture.
The Year She Left Us is a very original, yet quick read that doesn’t feel fluffy or trite.
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