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The Collective

3.59  ·  Rating details ·  905 ratings  ·  177 reviews
A sparkling bildungsroman about friendship and betrayal, art and race.

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 th
Hardcover, 310 pages
Published July 16th 2012 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published July 9th 2012)
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Average rating 3.59  · 
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 ·  905 ratings  ·  177 reviews

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Sep 25, 2012 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 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
Dec 04, 2012 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
Sep 15, 2015 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 the novel's core. The students, two boys and one girl--Korean American and Chinese American, respectively, form a loose "collective" during the freshman year they share at a ...more
Oct 15, 2013 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.
Feb 05, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: winter-2019
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Oct 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book hit close to home as an artist questioning how long, how much to sacrifice for art...
Nov 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
As a recent college graduate from an "elite" institution, Don Lee's "The Collective" brilliantly speaks to words many of the experiences my peers and I have been processing throughout undergraduate and beyond. He very naturally deals with several difficult topics, ranging from instances of hate speech on campus, to attempting to find one's way following graduation, to trying (and oftentimes failing) to organize within the Asian American community (and all of the joys and difficulties that that m ...more
Alia S
Aug 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-2016
* DISCLAIMER: I’m just beige, not Asian American, so WTF do I know.

We need more books like this. And this is me, saying so—I who am perfectly content to read old white guys, who will defend C.S. Lewis, Kipling, Conrad, Forster, Hemingway, Faulkner, Twain, the whole SJW shit-list, without ambivalence. I can do all that and still say, damn, we need more books like this.

It’s a fun read, first and foremost—I inhaled it in two commutes and one late night. But more valuable and more rare, it’s race in
Jul 05, 2012 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 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
Agree with C that the ideas about race and ethnicity in this book are not new to me. They are tiresomely old, in fact, but they haven't stopped being true, and that is what makes them so tiresome. I realized they might still be new to other people and so I am really happy that this book exists. Despite various shortcomings in character development, and some very sensationalist plot points, reading this felt deeply familiar and really drove home for me how little Asian American literature and med ...more
Jul 27, 2012 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. ...more
Apr 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 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? I want all my AsAm friends to read this.)
Jan 06, 2015 rated it liked it
Haha this is not a great book, but it was a necessary one. I must've put it down every other page because is this how white people feel all the time when they consume media? Hit uncomfortably close to home. Formative to my Asian American experience. ...more
Jan 17, 2015 rated it 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 ...more
Nov 01, 2014 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.
Intelligent and affecting, Don Lee's The Collective both challenged and moved me. I was surprised by how much emotion I felt at the end of the story, with Joshua's suicide (not a spoiler as it's also the opening sequence of the novel), and with the revelations that come with his death, especially for our narrator, Eric Cho.

Much of this book reads like a Socratic session at a small, liberal arts college - which is essentially the first half of this book. How do Asian Americans represent themselve
shrug city
Jun 23, 2020 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 25, 2017 rated it liked it
I found this book to be a very worthwhile read (3.5 star). It does a great job of detailing the lives of contemporary artists in the US as they confront the real world, told by someone who's lived life. It shows the vanity, hard work, desperation, unfairness, and financial insecurity. There is a lot of self-awareness and (for the most part) truth-seeking in this book.

The opening prose about the suicide is one of the best examples of story telling I've come across. The passage later about develo
Jul 28, 2014 rated it really liked it

Yes, he was depressed–obviously. But this was not something new or atypical for him. Aristotle called it melancholia, the predisposition artists have for depression, prone as they are to being morose and antisocial and self-flagellating and megalomaniacal. Indeed, without that inclination, no one would probably become an artist in the first place.

How well do we really know anyone? We only know what people are willing to reveal.

It’s not that people change. People don’t change. They mer
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 infin
Oct 17, 2019 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
John Luiz
Jul 29, 2012 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
Oct 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Well written and fun to read, yet also thought-provoking. Yes, the AsAm experience is a central focus. I can certainly relate to the characters. Racial undertones in daily life, struggling to address racism with action beyond just outrage, differences in opinion among AsAms about identity. But Lee also explores important aspects of being a young adult. We see how friendship can change as the people change, with different values and priorities as our trio goes from college to the late 20s and lat ...more
Erin Quinney
Mar 26, 2019 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Matthew Holley
Apr 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This has been on my To Read list for some time, because I’d heard that it’s great. It certainly is.
Joshua Yoon is one of the biggest assholes I’ve come across in a book for some time, a real mess of a person in multiple ways. But one of the things that Lee does so deftly is that he also makes Joshua heartbreaking, not just because he commits suicide (I’m not giving anything away here, the suicide happens on page 2) but because of the questions that remain unanswered about the depth and nature o
Jul 04, 2019 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Vicky by: Brandon Lee
Unfortunately I can’t keep reading this book. I made it halfway thru, when I realized the rest of the narration was going to be a play-by-play account of the most common Asian American gripes (fetishizing women, effeminate men, ching chang slurs) and all thru the viewpoint of an English major who wants to be a writer (extra cringe). This book IS relatable but it’s just not enough. I was really hooked by the opening pages, that it set me up with expectations that we will think back and forth cycl ...more
Apr 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
I like that this book discusses so many different types of artists trying to make it. And it presents them in more of a realistic light rather than glamorizing them.

The characters in this book are also all Asian American. Their varying experiences and approaches to racism are showcased. They are not portrayed as a uniform group but as individuals with their own perspectives.

The first chapter to this book was rather off putting by the manner in which a main character's suicide is described. I bel
Jan 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: g-fiction, w-library
The core exploration of race and part of the Asian American diasporic experience is foundational and so well done. But to me The Collective as much, if not more, a brilliant exploration of friendship, the artistic struggle, growing older, growing apart and meaning. There were so many passages that resonated with my 20s/30s — and not just b/c of my brief stint in Boston (c. 1997-98). Deft and utterly enjoyable.

I'm pretty sure I added this book solely because I saw it's beautiful cover through a (
Mar 21, 2018 rated it liked it
A novel about (among other themes) racial identity set in the late 80s, The Collective portrays three aspiring artists who are drawn to one another soon after enrolling at Macalester, a small, private liberal arts college in Minnesota. Far from home, they initially come to one another's attention because they are the only Asian Americans in their freshman class. Their friendship is reinforced by a shared experience of racial harassment, but maintaining their bond after graduation is made more di ...more
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Don Lee is the author most recently of the novel Lonesome Lies Before Us. He is also the author of the novel The Collective, which won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature from the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association; 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 Fir ...more

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  Kerine Wint is a software engineering graduate with more love for books than for computers. As an avid reader, writer, and fan of all things...
6 likes · 4 comments
“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.” 11 likes
“How can you explain that it's just that he was sad, that he'd been sad all his life, and he knew he'd always be sad?” 0 likes
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