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The Collective

3.55  ·  Rating Details  ·  683 Ratings  ·  147 Reviews
In 1988, Eric Cho, an aspiring writer, arrives at Macalester College. On his first day he meets a beautiful fledgling painter, Jessica Tsai, and another would-be novelist, the larger-than-life Joshua Yoon. Brilliant, bawdy, generous, and manipulative, Joshua alters the course of their lives, rallying them together when they face an adolescent act of racism. As adults in Ca ...more
Hardcover, 310 pages
Published July 16th 2012 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published July 9th 2012)
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Perfect Peace by Daniel BlackForgotten Country by Catherine ChungHome by Toni MorrisonFreeman by Leonard Pitts Jr.Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden
2012's Best Literary Fiction By People of Color
15th out of 38 books — 104 voters
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4th out of 29 books — 4 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,985)
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Sep 25, 2012 Constance rated it really liked it
God, WHAT A RELIEF to read a book about Asian Americans that isn’t about the hardworking self-sacrificing first generation and their tensions with their renegade independent American children (complete with flashbacks of the home country in the 40s and 50s).

The more I think about this book the more I think I liked it. Maybe a lot. I can’t really tell. It was sadly hard to discern whether I found it a little slow in parts because it actually was uninteresting or because I’m not used to reading ab
Jul 26, 2012 Eugene rated it liked it
the achievement of great, bittersweet passages (the opening scene of suicide, the sadly believable PC inanity of the collective's manifesto discussion, a narrative gamble on genital art that i think pays off) gets marred by some badly contrived episodes (the speech at the AA meeting, the immolation). But. this traditionally structured and styled novel (cheever and scott fitzgerald are named-checked) also contains difficult truths about both the writing life and asian america -- especially the tw ...more
Oct 12, 2015 Julie rated it really liked it
What does it mean to be an Asian American artist? Or a young Asian American artist? Is there a pan-American Asian identity? What constitutes Asian American art? Don Lee's novel attempts to answer these questions through a group of three students, who claim, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, this complex identity at his novel's core. The students, two boys, one girl, Korean Amercan and Chinese American, respectively, form a loose "collective" during the freshman year they share at a mid ...more
Aug 01, 2012 Karissa rated it really liked it
I have an uncomfortable relationship to "Asian American literature", and find myself often steering clear of it, worried it will be the same familiar stuff. But The Collective was refreshing and validating for an Asian American writer such as myself. It was a weird sort of meta feeling I got, reading this book, a book about Asian American artists struggling with the questions I have as an Asian American artist, or as an Asian American, period -- Do I have to write about Asians? How do I strike a ...more
Dec 08, 2012 Meryl rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book because it grapples with important questions about identity and race within the context of a highly engaging plot that’s both tragic and funny. Eric Cho, a third generation Korean American from California, has never consciously experienced racism or ethnic stereotyping before attending Macalaster, a small Northeastern liberal arts college.

In his freshman year, he meets Joshua Yoon, an adopted Korean who was raised by Jewish professors in Cambridge and Jessica Tsai, a
Oct 15, 2013 stacy rated it really liked it
i had started this during the summer. and then sort of just stopped reading for a couple months. when i picked this up again, i finished it in one sitting.

i liked it very much. and am so happy that i own it. thanks to a powells coupon. yay!

i agree with soc and c. reading it was very comfortable and familiar.

i want to read his other stuff now.

man alive. dear books, i've missed you.
Mar 20, 2013 Ming rated it really liked it
This is one of the most personally relevant books to me. As I was reading it, I immediately recalled the song, "Killing Me Softly." The story of three Asian American college students who wrestle with racial identity, with their "place" in US society, and with young adulthood and then adulthood reveals some of our deepest issues and processes. The writing is straightforward and Lee maintains a level of humor to balance some of the most poignant and vulnerable individual struggles. I felt as if Le ...more
Jan 18, 2015 Fei rated it really liked it
Refreshing to read abt Asian American artists! Interesting how the discussions around racial identity and whether one's art needed to address that was the force that ultimately destroyed the group. The story reads a bit like great Gatsby
Jun 10, 2015 Jackie rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, yellow
wow, I have never read anything that speaks so intimately to my experience - I kept thinking, how does he know? then, of course he knows. neither Eric nor Josh are particularly likeable, but I kept seeing myself woven in with strands of their character, for better or for worse. is this how white people feel when they read Gatsby?

the prose was beautiful, rich and hard-hitting, the type that makes me want to run down the street screaming why is everything so hard? made me ache and want more - kind
Rashmi Tiwari
Oct 11, 2015 Rashmi Tiwari rated it liked it
I loved this book for its insistence on looking directly at the undercurrent of racism toward Asian-Americans (as a South Asian, I feel so hard about this) and for creating characters who were almost blindly insistent on their pursuit of careers as artists, rather than the doctor/lawyer/MBA route that so many Asian-Americans are raised with.

There are some truly incredible moments here (the suicide that the book opens with, the slow falling apart of a promising Asian-American artist collective, t
Jul 27, 2012 Dewitt rated it it was amazing
I finished Don Lee's THE COLLECTIVE in two spellbound days. Beautifully managed first person narrator in Eric Cho; great dialogue throughout ; intellectual breadth, wit, and complexity in treating the themes of art and racism; great plot complication and satisfying closure. Lee’s richest and best. Of the many episodes, Ch. 12, the breakup with Mirielle on a visit to BVI, and in Ch. 15, the conflict over Jessica's sculpture with the Cambridge City Councilman, Vivaldo Barboza, were standouts.
Jul 19, 2014 Nic rated it really liked it
I was surprised by how much this book engaged me. I do love novels about college friends and lovers, would-be artists, the influence of larger-than-life personalities over their peers, sexual discovery and the mystery of suicide. (It's in Chapter one so not a spoiler!) Lee's novel reads light, but raises deeper thoughts, especially as Eric and Jason's actions make you start to realize "these guys can be real jerks." Yet I cared about this trio of characters, their conversations and challenges. T ...more
Linda Doyle
Apr 28, 2016 Linda Doyle rated it really liked it
Don Lee packs a lot into The Collective, a story of racial identity and tensions, sexual awakening, artistic endeavor, coming of age, and friendship. I especially enjoyed the sections that dealt with racial identity from the Asian-American perspective.

The three main characters are well defined and well written. What makes this book so good is how the author deftly handles the topics mentioned above. How these individuals view their world from their different perspectives and yet manage to remain
Mar 02, 2014 J rated it really liked it
Kind of like "Better Luck Tomorrow" in book form, it's sad that Lee's book is refreshing. "The Collective" is an absorbing read in every right and one of the few/(only?) books out there that I can name with fallible, barely likable, contradictory individuals (who happen to be Asian Americans). Yes, it is important that the main characters are Asian Americans and no, it is not important that the characters are Asian Americans.

Lee's book is a well written novel of the kinds of friendships and rom
Sep 23, 2015 Ying rated it really liked it
lacking a wow factor in the writing for 5, but whoooosh! how does Don Lee know so intimately of my life, of my interiority?
I am an Asian American failure.
I…have been sitting on this review for a while, trying to figure out how to go about it. Because I didn’t like it, but I feel like I should have liked it, but I can’t quite elucidate what it is that I didn’t like. Which is pretty important, you know. In a book review. To know what you did and did not like. About the. Book.


Um, to start, this book was dreadfully boring, which surprised me, because it’s not a typical Asian American book. It’s not an immigrant narrative, for which I was infini
Sep 02, 2014 Aileen rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014-04
"'But I haven’t experienced racism.'
'That’s a joke, right? Of course you have,' Joshua said. 'You’ve never had someone ask, ‘What are you?’ or ‘Where you from?’ or ‘What’s your nationality?’ because there’s no f**** way you can be a real American?'" (66)

"Esther was torn between the quesadillas with black beans and the vegetable pie made with puff pastry. 'They both sound so yummy. I just can’t decide,' she said. 'This is too much responsibility.' Defeated, she leaned her head on Jessica’s should
Aug 23, 2013 LL rated it liked it
Shelves: undergraduate
This book was a very odd book for me. As an Asian-American college student, this book was the first book that seriously 'spoke to me' on a cultural level: let's be real, can any of us seriously consider ourselves represented in contemporary lit? I haven't read any Amy Tan, but I'll be my bottom dollar that I won't be able to relate to her novels beyond the fact that I am a woman with a mother from da Motherland. For that, I give serious recognition to Don Lee.

However, I loathed the characters, a
Sep 19, 2012 Jessica rated it liked it
I love the idea behind The Collective - the lives of contemporary Asian American young people is something you don't see filling up the best-seller lists and I found it really interesting. The story really ensnared me at the beginning, but throughout the book I just couldn't get past the tin-eared dialogue and unsupported plot turns. Don Lee, unfortunately, seemed in this book at least to be of the school of "Tell, don't show." In the final chapter, Lee's narrator outright tells readers who his ...more
Jul 24, 2012 Janet rated it liked it
Shelves: first-reads
The Collective tells us about three Asian American friends who meet in college: Eric, Jessica and Joshua. The three couldn't be more different, and yet couldn't be more the same. Where Joshua is self-centered and a bit of a fake bully, Jessica is free-spirited and Eric wears his heart on his sleeve. However, all of them are struggling with their place in society as many college students do. Only they are all Asian American college students who, to varying degrees, have failed to live up to the s ...more
Jul 28, 2012 Alice rated it really liked it
A great book about identity politics and the difficulty of being an "artist" in modern America. The three protagonists, Joshua, Eric, and Jessica, meet as students at a small liberal arts college and form an Asian-American Artists collective. After college, they struggle to succeed in their chosen careers, compromising and making many mistakes along the way. What I loved about this book was that Lee perfectly captures the earnest idealism of young artists, and the internal struggles they face-- ...more
Graham P
Dec 19, 2012 Graham P rated it liked it
This is Don Lee's ode to the politically-correct, gen-ex era in academia (minneapolis and cambridge, massachusetts), and what makes this book strong is that he doesn't sugar-coat his characters (three asian-american artists who form a politically-motivated group called the 3AC) - nor does he paint them in the 'rags to riches' fashion, where they become successful as they grow older, wiser. It's quite the opposite, and Lee exposes the ideals that seem so righteous in youth, but in hindsight appea ...more
John Luiz
Aug 02, 2012 John Luiz rated it really liked it
Don Lee is a very talented writer and there is much to commend this book. I really liked his previous novel, Wrack and Ruin, maybe in part because I identified with the middle-aged men in that piece. Here his focus, for most of the book, is on young people in college and during the early days of their post-graduate lives. He portrays them with all the standard idealistic views and grandiose hopes people of that age have of taking the world by storm.

Eric Cho, a Korean American from California, is
Jul 27, 2012 Michael rated it really liked it
Don Lee's new novel The Collective is an insightful look at the lives of college and post-college friends, the bonds they form and the way those bonds change over time and with maturity. Lee adds an element of race relations by writing about the Asian-American experience from many different angles. Eric, Joshua and Jessica are college friends, the former two budding writers, the latter an artist, who form the group 3AC, a group of Asian-American artists who support each other, party with each ot ...more
Sep 09, 2012 Amy rated it liked it
This is the story of Joshua and all the ways he was a jerk, as told by his best friend from college. I got about halfway through this and then put it down. Joshua's mean-ness got to me.

This was not a friendship but a cold, competitive, backstabbing professional association. There is a ruthless, tough side to writing and art--good for Don Lee for reminding us not to romanticize the creative life. But if I want to read about this kind of insecure manipulation, I'll turn to academic satire, which
Nov 17, 2012 S. rated it really liked it
So I liked this a lot, mostly because it looks at a more contemporary Asian American experience. I liked the narrator, but it's hard to have sympathy for the person he talks/obsesses about. The book was at its most interesting when it was discussing the line between or through art and activism, what it means to be "Asian American" and still holding to your specific ethnic identity (Korean vs. Thai vs. Vietnamese vs. Chinese). You see how sticky identity gets and the concept of inclusion vs. excl ...more
Jul 07, 2012 Terry rated it liked it
Shelves: first-reads
Exceptionally well written; an insightful and provacative story.

The book opens with a suicide, and touches on the questions that the deceased's friends struggle with as they adjust to the death. Quickly, the story moves back 20 years in time to the beginning of college for the narrator, Eric, and two of his friends who meet at a very-white midwestern school. The three, all of Asian heritage, share a common passion for the arts -- one is a media artist and two are writers.

The story moves forward
Feb 25, 2013 Canuckgal rated it really liked it
I was shocked that I enjoyed this book as much as I did. I'm a voracious reader of all shades of pan-Asian lit, and while the premise of the novel fell into an oft worn and tired trope (too-smart-for-their-britches Asian university students connecting with their Asian-ness! Battling racism with one hand tied behind their backs! Asians realizing that sleeping with each other is not as icky as they thought!), Don Lee managed to make things fresh with close-to-flawless writing, sharp wit and actual ...more
Sep 02, 2013 Lizzie rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
"Despite your best efforts and intentions, there's a limited reservoir to fellowship before you begin to rely solely on the vapors of nostalgia. Eventually, you move on, latch on to another group of friends. Once in a while, though, you remember something, a remark or gesture, and it takes you back." p. 25

"Freshman at Macalester were requred to take a first-year course...Even though it wasn't our first choice, the three of us were thrown together in a course called "The Vietnam War: Apocalyptic
Jul 23, 2012 Michelle rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
For as much as I want to give this book a higher rating, I'm honestly torn. "The Collective" was well-written and had some great passages I know I'll come back to later, but I really didn't like the character of Joshua. He was didactic, opinionated...and yet I realize why he was that way and why he needed to be that way for the story. But, ultimately, I found him distracting. I also feel like I can't give this book a higher rating because I don't know that I would recommend it; not because it is ...more
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Don Lee is the author most recently of the novel The Collective. He is also the author of the novel Wrack and Ruin, which was a finalist for the Thurber Prize; the novel Country of Origin, which won an American Book Award, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and a Mixed Media Watch Image Award for Outstanding Fiction; and the story collection Yellow, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fic ...more
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“Despite your best efforts and intentions, there's a limited reservoir to fellowship before you begin to rely solely on the vapors of nostalgia. Eventually, you move on, latch on to another group of friends. Once in a while, though, you remember something, a remark or a gesture, and it takes you back. You think how close all of you were, the laughs and commiserations, the fondness and affection and support. You recall the parties, the trips, the dinners and late, late nights. Even the arguments and small betrayals have a revisionist charm in retrospect. You're astonished and enlivened by the memories. You wonder why and how it ever stopped. You have the urge to pick up the phone, fire off an email, suggesting reunion, resumption, and you start to act, but then don't, because it would be awkward talking after such a long lag, and, really, what would be the point? Your lives are different now. Whatever was there before is gone. And it saddens you, it makes you feel old and vanquished--not only over this group that disbanded, but also over all the others before and after it, the friends you had in grade and high school, in college, in your twenties and thirties, your kinship to them (never mind to all your old lovers) ephemeral and, quite possibly, illusory to begin with.” 8 likes
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