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The Leavers

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One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy.” But far away from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.

Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging. It’s the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away--and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of her past.

This powerful debut is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.

352 pages, Kindle Edition

First published May 2, 2017

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About the author

Lisa Ko

5 books884 followers
I'm the author of THE LEAVERS, a novel that won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award in Fiction. Set in New York and China, THE LEAVERS follows one young man's search for his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant who disappears when he's 11 years old, after which he is adopted by a white family. It's the story of one mother and her son: what brings them together and takes them apart.

I'm a believer in the long game: I started writing stories when I was 5 years old and published my first book at 41.

Find me on Twitter, learn more about my journey to publication on my website, and check out my PEN Ten interview.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,894 reviews
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,964 reviews294k followers
November 9, 2017
Junior year of high school, he had seen a Chinese woman in the Littletown Mall. Thin, with permed hair, gripping plastic bags with the handles twisted around each other. She'd honed in; there was no hiding his face, and when she spoke he understood her Mandarin. She was lost. Could he help? She needed to make a phone call, find a bus. Her face was scared and anxious. Two teenage boys, pale and gangly, had watched and mimicked her accent, and Daniel had said, in English, "I can't speak Chinese." Afterwards, he tried to forget the woman, because when he did think of her, he felt a deep, cavernous loneliness.

Apologies for the long opening quote, but I felt this one small scene beautifully captured the feel of The Leavers. It is a sad book about immigration and identity, made even more poignant by the lack of emotional manipulation. It doesn't feel driven by an agenda; it just feels like a story about some people. And, because of that, it feels true.

It is a quiet tale, driven by its characters and subtle exploration of race and belonging. There are two stories being told-- that of Deming Guo, whose mother disappears one day and leaves him to be adopted by white, upper middle class Americans, and that of his mother, Polly Guo, who comes to America from Fuzhou to find a better life for herself and her then unborn son.

At its heart, The Leavers is a story of constantly feeling out of place. Even when Deming Guo becomes Daniel Wilkinson and attends the schools his adoptive family choose for him, he is still not quite American enough for the world he keeps trying to adapt to. His parents, Peter and Kay, are well-meaning but participate in and encourage racial microaggressions, believing their disdain for poor Mexican workers to be harmless banter; believing their American "Chinese" food to be an adequate way to bring Deming/Daniel closer to his birth culture.

But when Deming later finds himself in Fuzhou, he realizes that his home isn't there either. Looking Chinese but talking American means he doesn't really fit in anywhere.

And Polly, too, feels out of place. Her options as a single pregnant woman in China are poor, but New York is a terrifying and often unfriendly city. She watches her son become better and better at speaking English, and feels herself left behind, struggling to communicate with him as he becomes ever more part of a world she will never belong to.

Then, beneath the issues of immigration, race and identity, there is simply the story of a mother and her son, the love between them, and the effects of them being ripped apart. As a daughter, the worst thing that could have possibly happened to me at Deming's age was to lose my mother. I would have lost my anchor, my constant, my entire world. Now, as a mother, there is nothing worse I can imagine than losing my child. To have someone else raise him and, perhaps, most torturously, offer him better than I could... it brings me an almost physical pain to just imagine it. This book tapped into that.

The Leavers somehow both sheds a light on the reality of the immigrant experience for many, AND manages to be a universal, painfully-human story. It is at once eye-opening and relatable, and it affected me deeply.

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Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews38 followers
November 1, 2019
Wow!!... This book is a kindle special for $1.99 today. If you haven’t read it yet - have a kindle - grab it for this price!!! It’s a GREAT BOOK! I thought I was the fool for waiting so long to read it.

It was only after I touched the hardback in my indi Book store -- silky smooth to touch... gorgeous vibrant orange color...stamped as an "Literary Award Winner"....did I ask myself, "what the hell is wrong with you?" Why was I hesitating reading this book? I knew about it - read a few things about this story - Great Reviews-- but I THOUGHT I HAD READ ENOUGH DEBUT NOVELS ABOUT IMMIGRANTS- legal 'or' illegal!!!

WHAT ELSE WAS I POSSIBLY GOING TO LEARN? WHAT COULD I *REALLY* TAKE AWAKE FROM THIS BOOK THAT I HAVEN'T FROM EVERY OTHER WITH SIMILAR THEMES OF HARDSHIPS - DEBT- MEAGER EXISTENCE- STRUGGLES.....unraveling of The American Dream??? Would I end up just feeling sad - and that life is frickin unfair? -- and VERY HARD for some people??? Or maybe -- ( oh God, just maybe one of these books WILL be THE BOOK THAT MAKES THE POWERFUL GLOBAL SHIFTING DIFFERENCE?)......

Well, I DID SHIFT!!! I AM DIFFERENT than when I started this novel. I hope my local book club picks 'Lisa Ko's, "The Leavers", for one of our monthly picks. This novel calls for some serious- worthy discussions!!!!

First off -- the storytelling is powerful and consistently compelling. Mother and son are both living between two worlds --- there is hardship and triumph- heartbreak and love.
There are sooo many things I want to talk about in this novel - I honestly don't know where to begin -
EVERY CHARACTER is so vivid - real - so fully developed-- we could talk about each 'one' of them -in length from many perspectives. Pelican, for example, is a fascinating woman -restless spirit-independent thinker -liked to curse -could hold a firece grudge. Leon reminded me of a man that tried so hard to please everyone -
Deming was my hero in ways. No kid was 'left' more. He grows up as Daniel with new parents Peter and Kate.... ( who have their own issues about parenting).
All the supporting characters.....Michael - Roland - Angel - Vivian - etc. add to this story and are also in your thoughts.

It's impossible to say all I want to say in this review-- so I'm going to add a 'few' things that have changed me PERSONALLY FOREVER.....
Rather than tell about the details of this story....( I'm guessing you can find that in other reviews).....I going to share a few GUT WRENCHING images that I've taken away:

NOBODY comes to America hoping to pick gao gao out of strangers toes and scraping calluses the size of a nose off of the heel of a woman's heel..... ONLY TO GET A SHIT TIP!!!!!



WORKING IN A SLAUGHTERHOUSE has got to be one of the worse jobs on the planet -- on so many levels: physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally.

Deming, born in Manhattan, New York, was sent to Minjjang, China, to live with his grandfather for the first six years of his life. Why did Peilan, his undocumented mother stay in America? Why not go back to China with her son where she could have family support raising her son without the separation?


Exquisitely written ......deeply human meditation on despair, loss, love, immigration, identity, diversity, hope, human longings, consequences, .......multilayered and deeply felt!!!!

Thank You Netgalley, Algonquin Books, and Lisa Ko
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,484 reviews29.4k followers
May 16, 2017

The Leavers by Lisa Ko is utterly exquisite. This book about two different people's struggle between doing what is right, what people want and expect them to do, and what they want to do, is tremendously moving and powerful. As the title suggests, it's both a story of those who leave and the effect on those who are left.

Deming Guo is 11 years old. He's being raised by his mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, and they live in a crowded Bronx apartment with Polly's boyfriend, his sister, and his nephew, who is Deming's surrogate brother. Polly wants more than her exhausting job at a nail salon—she wants the opportunity to make more money and not kill herself in the process. Deming wants his mother to be around more yet he wants her to have the money to give him what he wants.

One day, Polly leaves for her job, and never returns. At first, no one is exactly sure where she went. Did she go to Florida to pursue a better job opportunity, and she'll send for Deming when she gets on her feet? But if that's the case, why hasn't she gotten in touch with anyone? Deming doesn't understand why his mother has left him, and bargains with himself constantly that if he does better in school, is nicer to his peers, Polly will return. But she doesn't.

When the burden of caring for Deming becomes too much to bear for those left behind, he becomes the foster child of an older couple, Peter and Kay, both college professors, and they convince him that to better adjust and assimilate with his peers in upstate New York, he should change his name to Daniel. Daniel has a great deal of trouble adjusting, however, something that causes Peter and Kay a great deal of difficulty, since they aren't sure if they're even suited to be parents anyway. But still, they adopt Daniel, and pressure him to buckle down academically.

The Leavers follows Daniel as he grows into a rudderless young man, torn between wanting to pursue his own dreams and wanting to please his parents, or he's afraid they'll leave him as his mother did. It also traces Daniel's struggles to understand what happened to his mother and deciding if he should try and follow some leads that might have presented themselves to him. The book also follows Polly from her childhood in China to the day she disappeared, and outlines the difficult choices she is forced to make.

Ko's storytelling is truly breathtaking, as she has created two characters who capture your heart and will stay in your memory. Neither character is 100 percent admirable, and at times their actions are frustrating, but you understand their struggles and feel for them. And while some of the other characters may make decisions that anger or frustrate, you see that they're also very complex, no matter how much time they're in the book.

I absolutely loved this book, and read the entire thing in one sitting while on a plane. I was moved, I was blown away, I wanted to shake the characters and make them act or say the thing that might move things forward, and ultimately, I was sad when I was done. I cannot wait to see what's next for Lisa Ko, because this was one hell of a book.

See all of my reviews at http://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blo....
Profile Image for Rachel.
550 reviews879 followers
June 26, 2017
I'm having a hard time getting my thoughts together on The Leavers. You know those books that technically do everything right, but you still don't love them for some reason? 3 stars feels unfair to the author, who's created a beautiful story that sweeps across multiple generations and locations, but I'm in the habit of using my reviews and ratings to express my personal experience with books. I'm not trying to reach an objective truth, here, just explain why I wasn't able to love this book the way I'd thought I was going to.

The Leavers tells the story of Deming Guo, whose mother, Peilan, leaves for work one day in New York City and never comes home. Deming is then adopted by a white family, the Wilkinsons, who live in rural upstate New York. The story then follows Deming, who's been rechristened Daniel, in the decade following his adoption, as he tries to assimilate to his new life while still searching for information about his birth mother.

If this book had been told entirely from the point of view of Peilan, I probably would have given it 5 stars. I found her chapters riveting; from her early years growing up in a small Chinese village to working in a factory in Fuzhou to her immigration to America, I thought her story was compelling, and I could not put the book down during these segments. Unfortunately, this was a comparatively rather small part of the novel.

I just could not get invested in Deming. While there was a lot that I found intriguing about his character - his insecurity about his cultural identity, never feeling American enough or Chinese enough to fit anywhere, as well as his uncertainty about his future - there was also a lot that just bored me, for lack of a better word. So much of his narrative focuses on his gambling addiction as well as his floundering career as a guitarist, and I just felt detached from a lot of it, like I was viewing the action of this story through a hazy lens and I didn't care enough to examine it more closely. I was often frustrated by Deming, who made a series of poor decisions without much thought for the consequences, and I think this frustration was partially the point, but this character just never managed to grab me in the way I had hoped for. I pitied him in an abstract kind of way, but given that this is a largely character driven novel, there just wasn't enough to sustain my interest.

The parts of this novel that deal with the unique struggles of being a Chinese American adoptee - quite literally torn between two worlds - are heart-wrenching and fascinating, but I'm sorry to say that for the most part, this book just left me cold. It's very technically well made, just lacking in emotional resonance for me. Sometimes certain books just don't work for certain readers, and there isn't always a rhyme or reason to it, which I think might be the case here.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,286 reviews2,204 followers
July 30, 2017
Imagine you're a 17 year old girl named Peilan who becomes Polly, and you've come come to the US from China seeking a better life . And oh by the way you're pregnant and here illegally, owing a loan shark $50,000. You have to work long hours in awful working conditions to scrape enough for the payments. You have to bring your infant son to work with you because there is no one to care for him. There are some things that happen in this story that were hard to relate to but then this immigrant experience is so far removed from what I know. This story was an eye opener for sure.

Imagine you are a young man named Daniel who was born in Chinatown in Manhattan, sent when he was one year old to live with his grandfather in a village in China and then sent back to his mother at six. That was when he was Deming before his mother disappears when he is eleven. It's been ten years since Peilan has disappeared and Deming is a college student struggling with being abandoned even though adopted. He struggles with his identity, with a gambling addiction, what to do with his life . He remembers when he was with his mother and doesn't understand why she left. At least he has his music. While I'm not a fan of hard rock, it is comforting to know that Deming's music is something he can hold on to . " He would learn how to create music, matching tones to shades to feelings and translating them back to melody. ...He'd craft songs that conveyed exactly what he wanted to say....the rest of the world heard only sound, and that would leave him with lingering sadness...".

The story is told from their two points points of view, a third person narrative from Deming's perspective and then a first person narrative by his mother. The common thread is their love for each other and their memories of each other. This is a sad story in many ways depicting the separation of a mother and child. It isn't until later in the story that we learn what happened to Peilan. I not going to say much more about the plot. Suffice it to say, this is a moving view of immigrants, a timely one. Lisa Ko does a good job of helping us imagine these lives. A striking debut, recognized by Barbara Kingsolver as the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction as a novel that addresses social injustice.

I received an advanced copy of this book from Algonquin Books through Edelweiss.
Profile Image for jessica.
2,535 reviews32.6k followers
May 23, 2021
i thought the heart of this story was a really interesting mystery for so much of this book, but then it turned out to be a much more serious commentary on social injustices and my reading experience went from intrigued with a disappearance to so disheartened with how the US handles immigration.

i really enjoyed how this book is structured. i think the slow reveals of key information, learning it the same time deming/daniel does, really helped me connect with him and better understand his situation, which is a situation that so many people are currently facing in reality. the writing is nice and covers a lot of important issues, while maintaining deming/daniel as the priority.

i just wanted more for the ending, more for the characters. the story gives a rather extensive look at how a particular event shapes the entire life of deming/daniel, and i think he deserved more than the underwhelming conclusion he got. i understand the way things play out they way they do, but thats not stopping me from wanting an ending that didnt feel quite as rushed and unfinished for the reader.

but regardless, this is a really eye-opening novel and a story well-told.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews869 followers
December 3, 2021
“It was that kind of mindfuck: to be too visible and invisible at the same time, in the ways it mattered the most.”

In Lisa Ko's The Leavers, Deming Guo is transformed into Daniel Wilkinson. And though the transformation seems complete, identity is a stubborn thing. The story focuses on Deming/Daniel and the mother who is forced to leave him behind, Peilan/Polly. Deming is a musician who is struggling to find his voice and Peilan works in a nail salon until she is detained and deported to China. After many years apart, Deming tries to reconnect to her and himself. Great storytelling with compelling and well-developed characters! Very timely! 4.5 stars

Image may contain: 2 people, including J.L. Sutton, people smiling, people standing, suit and outdoor

Updating to include a picture with Lisa Ko after her reading in Wyoming in 2019. Nearly 80 people showed up in my small town to hear her wonderful reading!
Profile Image for Susanne.
1,159 reviews36.8k followers
June 8, 2017
5 Stars.

Deming Guo was a young boy when one day, his mother disappeared. That morning, he went to school and she went to work. The difference? He came home.

"The Leavers" is a coming of age story about a Chinese American boy named Deming Guo (n/k/a Daniel Wilkinson). Deming had to grow up faster, and learn to shut off his feelings and thoughts in a way that no child ever should.

He and his mother Peilan (Polly) were always very close. They were, like two birds of a feather, two peas in a pod, best friends. They lived in an apartment with Polly's boyfriend Leon, his sister Vivian and her son, Michael and they became an instant family. The day his mother failed to come home, everything changed. His life was taken away and all of a sudden, he was sent to live with Peter and Kay Wilkinson and he became Daniel Wilkinson. Peter and Kay tried to "Americanize" him. Thereafter, Daniel struggled to find himself and be accepted by his "parents."

Polly Guo's history was a difficult one. Moving to New York, alone and pregnant, working menial jobs, while speaking very little English? Its hard to imagine.. yet it happens everyday. Her struggles were real. And she faced them alone.

This is a story about family, the family you are born with v. the family that you're given. You know the saying, you give what you give and you get what you get. Every. Single. Character. in this book can identify with that. It's also a story about choices. The choices we make v. the choices that are made for us. It's a story about letting go when doing so seems like an impossible feat. And last but not least, its a story about our hopes and our fears as well as loss and love and how we handle both. To summed it up, it's a story that touched me in a myriad of ways. And I am better for it.

Lisa Ko has written an exquisite novel. And a debut at that! Her words envelop you. They evoke emotions that are so rarely felt. The characters are rich, well thought out, descriptive, beautiful. That's not to say that they are all perfect however, some are quite flawed. And well, Human. I listened to the audiobook (the narrator was phenomenal) and I will be buying the hardcover simply because I must have a copy of it for my bookshelf.

I can't possibly recommend this novel highly enough. It might just be my favorite book of the year so far.

Published on Goodreads and Amazon on 6.7.17.
Profile Image for Debbie.
441 reviews2,794 followers
April 24, 2017
Damn damn damn spoilers! Even though the blurb and reviews don’t come out and say exactly what happened, a couple of buzz words kept loudly buzzing around in my head. Unfortunately, they landed on the exact right spot. Bingo! I figured out what had happened almost as soon as the story started. It spoiled the mystery, that’s for sure.

But luckily this story isn’t primarily a mystery. It’s a well-written and interesting coming-of-age story about a Chinese-American kid, Deming (aka Daniel). It’s also a story about his mom, who disappears when Deming is eleven. I love it when a book lets me peek into lives that are so different from mine. Oh god, that sounds so sweet and touristy. Sure, I appreciate, like a detached but curious student of anthropology, a fine peeky-peek into their every-day lives. But way more important is the shiver I feel when I sternly glare at some atrocities, some rugged truths, they faced. I’ll stay vague here, on purpose, so don't ask. I’m dying to talk about this book—so please read it soon!

The story makes you think about a lot of things—what home means, what belonging to a tribe means, how it feels to try to become part of another tribe, how it feels to be separated from those you love. Deming had such a rough deal. I can imagine how sad and hard it was for him to be constantly wondering where his mother had gone, and why. Did she abandon him because she didn’t love him? Did she get killed? The uncertainty was there, torturing him, for a long time.

Daniel faces some heavy stuff—the loss of a mother, the oddness and awkwardness of being adopted, and guilt over not getting his act together. And of course confusion over who he was, where he was going, what he wanted to do. Throughout most of the story, he’s sad, lonely, and insecure. He feels alienated. Could anyone blame him, though, since his mom disappeared out of thin air and he was suddenly thrown into a whole different culture?

One drawback—I didn’t relate to or particularly like Deming or his mother. They both seemed stoical, which made me feel stoical and detached in return. Still, there were well-drawn and complex characters. I don’t have to love the characters to love the book.

Deming’s life was pretty quiet, but his mother’s life, now that’s a different story. Her life had been riveting and I was completely drawn in. I had pretty strong emotions about her, and they weren’t all positive. I’m not proud to say it but I was constantly judging how good a mother she had been. At the same time, I felt so deeply for all she had to endure, and I felt really sick about the brutal unfairness she faced. As the story progressed, I started to understand her choices and cut her some slack. Her powerful story isn’t told until the last part of the book, though, so I had to spend most of my time hanging out with Deming. Structurally, it makes perfect sense to have the mom’s story at the end. I just wish I had cared more about Deming.

The language is straightforward. Maybe a bit too much description, but it’s done well so I didn’t get bored. There are super nice metaphors throughout, though there was one time the author went overboard. She uses multiple metaphors to describe a view of the city. I had to construe too many disparate images in my mind. Seriously, she compared things to masking tape, a greeting card, and a band of mismatched toys all in one paragraph. My mind was jumping all over the place! Using just one metaphor would have been a lot stronger. The paragraph seemed sophomoric, like an exercise you’d have in a creative writing class. Maybe the author was over-enjoying her skill of being able to describe things in a super interesting way. Kill your darlings, I want to whisper to the author, it will be okay. Luckily I only experienced (or tuned in on?) the metaphor madness that one time.

I loved that the story mostly took place in New York City (which might be my favorite story locale ever), and I was fascinated when the story moved to China.

I recently read and enjoyed the short-story collection, The Refugees. Although the stories have a different feel and focus, that book is similar to this one in that it’s about Asians coming to America. Both books are excellent.

I purposely tried here to be plenty vague about the plot; I don’t want to spoil it for you. But I will say that this is a really good book that you’ll want to get your hands on. It’s hard to believe this is a debut, but it’s not hard to believe it has already won an award.

Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy.

P.S. Does the title bother anyone else? Who has ever heard of leavers? I know it’s a real word, but it sort of sounds made up. Plus I just don’t even like the sound of it . . .
Profile Image for Julie .
4,030 reviews58.9k followers
July 4, 2017
The Leavers by Lisa Ko is a 2017 Algonquin Books publication.

Timely, heartbreaking, and emotional.

Polly immigrates to the US from China and is raising her young son Deming, living with her boyfriend, Leon, his sister, Vivian, and her son, Michael. But, one day, after an argument, Polly leaves for work and disappears.

With no blood relatives, Deming finds himself at the mercy of Vivian, who says she can’t afford to keep him. However, he does end up in a good home, with Kay and Peter, an educated couple who try their best to offer him a better life.

After his adoption, Kay and Peter change his name to Daniel, completing his transformation into their environment. But, all the while, his mother’s fate haunts him. Had she simply abandoned him or did something terrible happen to her?

There are many books about mothers and daughters, a relationship often fraught with various juxtapositions, but a bond between a mother and her son, is something we should explore and cheer on more often.

In this case, Deming never knew his father, so his mother was his whole world. He struggles to adapt to his new life, bowing under pressure, developing a gambling problem, but finding relief through music.

I don’t think it’s rocket science to conclude that Deming/Daniel’s unrest, his inability to settle in and focus is wrapped up in his lack of closure concerning his mother, and his struggle with the two sides of him, with his peace of mind remaining elusive.

But, by the second part of the story, I began to understand there was more going on that what appears on the surface, shifting the focus onto the broken immigration system, giving Polly a chance to tell her side of the story. She too, struggles with a duality, trying to meld her past self with the woman and the life she has now.

Kay and Peter are do gooders, patting themselves on the back for giving Daniel a new life when a younger child was what they would have preferred. Not only that, they project their ideals and perhaps unrealistic expectations onto Daniel, unable to understand his seeming lack of ambition.

While, Kay and Peter aren’t necessarily bad people, they aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy either, and although they do put some effort into making him feel more comfortable in his mostly white surroundings, they are perhaps a little credulous.

So, ultimately, there really are no bad guys, per se, except for struggles and consequences faced by immigrants, which of course makes this story especially poignant and relevant in this moment in time.

There are some parts in the book that went on too long or went into too much detail, especially since it didn’t exactly add a lot to the relevance of the situation, and bordered on ‘filler’, but that’s really just a minor blip when compared with what I took away from the story.

The novel is partly a mystery, since we have no idea what has become of Polly after her vanishing act, but it is mostly a story about the bond between a mother and son, the cause of the heartbreaking rip in their relationship, the resulting fall out, and the struggle to find one’s true identity.

4 stars
Profile Image for Jaline.
444 reviews1,608 followers
September 18, 2017
In China, Polly longs for a better life – one of adventure and excitement rather than confinement and poverty. Although she works for a time in a larger city, she continues to long for more. Polly ends up in New York, owing a vast amount of money to loan sharks in order to pursue her dreams. She has a baby boy, Deming, and eventually has to extend her loan to send him back to her father in China until he is school age.

When Deming returns, Polly is still living in straitened circumstances and working long hours to repay her loans. When Deming is 11 years old, their world is turned upside down through a series of life-altering circumstances. Deming finds himself adopted into a white family in a small city outside of New York and his adolescence and young adulthood are stained with the thoughts that his mother left him behind due to something he said or did.

Through recordings of his adoptive father that Deming (now known as Daniel) discovers, an interest in playing guitar becomes a passion for Daniel. This led me to my own adventures: onto YouTube to watch a documentary on Jimi Hendrix, which led to watching a compilation of outstanding guitar solos with Prince in various concerts. Daniel not only hears the music but he sees it in colors at the same time and it isn’t long before he starts to compose his own music as well.

There is much more to the plot and the story moves through time and a few places in the USA and China. What stood out for me in this book is how authentic the ‘voices’ are. I could hear the various cultures: Chinese, American, and Chinese-American in the characters’ thoughts and speech, and it can be felt in their actions and hopes and dreams.

This is an impressive novel with a broad scope that sweeps the reader up into cultural differences that somehow throw a spotlight onto our human similarities. Beautifully written and compelling, this is a novel that will continue to make me think about all it contains well into the future.
Profile Image for Carol.
829 reviews482 followers
March 31, 2017
With sincere gratitude I thank Algonquin Books, Annie Mazes of Workman Publishing, the author, Lisa Ko, and Edelweiss for providing an e-galley of Leavers for my enjoyment and review.
A special shout-out to Northshire Bookstore and Tracy Davies, Events Manager for bringing Kisa Ko to Booktopia 2017 in Manchester, Vermont.

I usually format my reviews with The Hook, The Line, and The Sinker. This is difficult to do with galleys as the publisher asks that passages not be quoted, as the finished work may be different.

Lisa Ko begins her novel in which the first sentence states a fact, yet presents a question that hooks this reader. Deming Guo, a young Chinese boy is living in a New York City apartment with his mother, her boyfriend, the boyfriend’s sister and her son. One day Peilan (Polly) Guo does not come home from work. Having mentioned a plan to seek employment in Florida, Deming is certain this is where she has gone and will soon be home. But why didn’t she tell him she was leaving? As days turn into years, the course of Deming’s life changes in ways we might not suspect. What follows is an emotionally wrought exploration of leaving and just what that means.

It is hard to believe that this is Lisa Ko’s debut work as it is pitch perfect. It is a social and cultural commentary for our time, and deserving of the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

As I read Leavers it brought to mind the leaves on trees; they come and go without consent, just as Ko’s characters do.

Highly Recommended
Leavers is a winner and bound to be a most beloved book of 2017. It hits the stand May 2, 2017. Don’t miss it.
Profile Image for Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader.
2,129 reviews30.3k followers
August 10, 2017
I've had a great reading year in 2017, and The Leavers is in my top favorites.

Thanks to my reading friends who strongly encouraged me to read The Leavers because I never tire of books on immigrant experiences. Forgive my idealism, but I believe this is one of those empathy-building/perspective-taking books you wish everyone would read. Being an immigrant in a foreign country is not easy for Peilan. She arrived in the United States young, pregnant, and owing an enormous debt. I don't want to give away too much about the plot as it unfolds in a masterful way and takes the reader on quite a ride through undocumented immigration, mother-son relationships, foster care/adoption, Chinese and American culture, family, belonging, and healing relationships. Lisa Ko's writing is beautifully engaging, and her characterization was flawless. Deming and Peilan, Leon and Michael; these characters will stay in my heart for a long, long time.

Summer 2017 Read #21
April 17, 2017
Deming Guo is a fifth grader living with his mother Polly in the Bronx. Polly is an illegal immigrant who supports them by working at a nearby nail salon. Together, they live in an apartment with her boyfriend and his family. One day, Polly does not return home from work and no one can find her.

Ten years later, Deming is a college student named Daniel. He is struggling with life and has developed a gambling problem. He is uninterested in college, and his friends are tired of his indecisiveness. He is a disappointment to his adoptive parents who have continued to provide support and encouragement throughout the years. He has believed throughout his life that his mother has abandoned him and this has shaped his behavior. This story evolves into the mystery regarding his mother's disappearance and how it has haunted his life.

The depiction of the emotional connection between mother and child is aided by the the flashbacks of Deming’s and Polly’s life prior to her disappearance. Points of view swap between both characters and enhances the flow of the book. The Leavers also provides readers with glimpses of the hardships faced by immigrants trying to assimilate to a new country.

This is a debut novel by the author. I believe that we will be hearing a lot more about this book as it gets closer to the 2017 release date.

Giveaway on my blog until 4/19 https://www.facebook.com/suzyapproved...
Profile Image for emma.
1,823 reviews48.6k followers
February 14, 2022
No matter how many books I read, I can't inure myself to them.

I have 1,300 marked as read on this terrible platform, and even still they are capable of:
- grinding my gears
- getting me going
- and other alliterative phrases beginning with G related to emotional responses.

Take this book, for example.

I was in a bit of a reading slump when I started it, but desperately attempting to ignore it, which is how I respond to every slump I've ever had and also every mild inconvenience or general disturbance in my life.

True to form, it took me ages to get through it, but that only made things worse in terms of me having to feel things (an experience I try to avoid).

It made me notice the amazing exploration of diaspora, of family, of how we view race.

I really took in the wonderful character development, not only of our pained protagonist whose suffering makes him so hard to read about (both because of empathy and because, well, he sucks) but of everyone around him.

But most of all, I really felt the turns of phrase and descriptions that I would never have remembered in a faster read, and they've stayed with me.

The writing here is lovely, and sentences like "their laughter was the kind with no core, only loose edges" are striking.

But also, this author had the power to destroy me in a few common words.

Like when Deming, our protagonist, first goes to his new school and is completely alone. His solitude is palpable, as he eats lunch by himself, speaking to no one through his days. The first time someone asks him where he's from, we receive this: "Deming cleared his throat. 'The Bronx. Where are you from?'"

The throat clearing. The little boy whose voice is rusty, who worries about this outcome, who wants this first interaction to go well and change things.

Four words broke my heart.

This was a month ago.

I'm still not over it.

Bottom line: Reading is the worst. Nothing else makes you feel so much. It's horrifying.


this one's gonna hurt.

update: it did.

review to come / 4 stars
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
618 reviews338 followers
June 25, 2017
3.5 ★
When Barbara Kingsolver and Ann Patchett endorse a book I pay attention.
Lisa Ko’s debut novel is a book-full of many things. Among them, a mother/son relationship, the plight of undocumented immigrants and their children born in the United States with all rights and privileges of citizenship denied their parents, the search for personal identity and self-worth, foster parenting and adoption, skilled writing I very much appreciated—at times—and therein was also my problem with it.
The writing got in its own way too often with too much detail and description. There were two narratives, each fluctuating between past and present that upset my reading groove. I would put it down and come back to a different story-line, sometimes in the past, then the present, back and forth, and more details. I kept finding other things to do—counting pages—suffering from reader’s jet lag.

That said, the sections that worked for me were wonderful, soulful, compassionate reading. Polly was a most original heroine/mother but often hard to like, as was her son Deming. I don’t hold that against them, humans struggling through great hardship can be difficult to embrace with affection but in the end we were good.
If you’ve never read anything on this subject matter (I have), this is bound to be an eye-opener. Despite my issues it is the best one so far. It just tried to be too many places at once. I liked the denouement, and despite the emotionally challenging subject matter, I never felt manipulated. But my rating is about the reading and I’m unable to round up to the ‘really liked it’ level.
Profile Image for Taryn.
325 reviews299 followers
August 21, 2017
"I promise I'll never leave you."

Deming Guo/Daniel Wilkinson has never had much stability in his life. He was born in New York to an undocumented Chinese immigrant, but was sent to live with family in China when he was only one year old. He was sent back to New York to live with his mother when he turned six. Five years later, his mother disappears without a trace. Peilan/Polly Guo left for work one morning and never returned. At the age of eleven, the people he thought were his family place him in the foster care system. He's adopted by a white family in a suburban community.

You could play it one way and play it another, the same note sounding different depending on how you decided to hear it. You could try to do all the right things and still feel wrong inside.

Deming's feelings towards his adoptive parents are complicated. He desperately wants their approval, but he's never sure what they want from him. They mean well and give him a comfortable life, but they’re out of touch. They insist on complete assimilation, even going as far as changing his name to Daniel. Occasionally they try to incorporate their own conception of Chinese culture into his life, but they don't ask for his input and there's no consideration of how varied cultures can be in such a large country. They aren't sensitive to his unique circumstances and develop a "colorblind" approach to parenting him. When he overhears a racist comment, his adoptive mother panics and insists that he misheard. She often seems to view life in China as inferior to life in the United States. She doesn't realize her view of China may be biased, that her life isn't the only type of life worth living, or even that her suburban community insulates her from some of the United States' own problems.

It was a funny thing, forgiveness. You could spend years being angry with someone and then realize you no longer felt the same, that your usual mode of thinking had slipped away when you weren’t noticing.

With all that he's been through in his twenty-one years, it's no surprise that Deming/Daniel struggles with issues of identity and belonging. He blames himself for his mother’s disappearance. He feels unwanted and undeserving of love. A fear of letting people down forces him to keep people at an arm's length. When he's uprooted from Chinatown and placed in the predominately white and middle-class Ridgeborough, NY, he has to learn to navigate a completely different culture. He endures a constant onslaught of thoughtless comments and is exhausted by being both invisible and conspicuous at the same time. All throughout the book, he's forced to compartmentalize his feelings and be careful about what he reveals to each person in his life. He can't even completely relax with his closest friends: "Be careful. They're not on your side. It's important to be strong." He tries so hard to fit in, to the point of losing himself altogether: "Daniel was malleable, everyone and no one, a collector of moods, a careful observer of the right thing to say.” The issues that Deming struggles with from having few family connections and a complicated parent really resonated with me. One of the most heartbreaking moments was when he felt embarrassment at referring to his mother as "Mama," because "it felt like he was claiming something that didn’t belong to him."

Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days.

I was really interested in Daniel's perspective on life, but his chapters felt uneven. He had so much going on in his life, and his musical obsession and gambling problem were a little boring for me. Peilan's chapters took the book to the next level. Peilan has never been content to stand still and lives for the excitement of new beginnings. She writes about growing up in China, the series of events that brought her to the United States, and the struggles of starting over in a place far away from everything she'd ever known. She immigrated to the United States in hopes of a better life and financial success, but moving up the economic ladder is almost impossible between low-wage jobs, unexpected expenses, and mounting debt. Despite the new location, she finds herself encountering similar roadblocks as she did in China. She manages to build her own little family in the New York, but she feels isolated when her son speaks in rapid English that she can't understand or she hears her boyfriend exchanging family stories with his sister. She also feels suffocated by motherhood and the heavy responsibility of guiding her son in the right direction.

Daniel preferred disorder to order, liked the trees in the spaces between buildings, leaves touching the low roofs of older homes. The city looked like it was trying to build itself up but would never fully succeed. This was an underdog’s city, ambitious and messily hungry, so haphazard it could collapse one night and be reassembled by the following morning.

When Deming remembers his short relationship with his mother, he remembers being "enough" and not having to try so hard to be accepted. Despite spending only five years together, there are many parallels to how Deming and Peilan experience the world. They find comfort in disorder, knowing "that nothing stayed the same for too long, that each day was a new opportunity for reinvention." They both experience synesthesia. They imagine other versions of themselves leading different lives. They both feel their pasts and everyone who has touched their lives as a physical weight. Getting to know Deming and Peilan as individuals shows how family bonds go much deeper than the biological.

"We can’t make ourselves miserable because we think it’ll make them happy. That’s a screwed up way to live.”

There's also the recurring theme of a parent's expectations conflicting with their child's needs and desires. There are both parents who see their child's successes and deficiencies as a reflection of themselves and those who don't expect anything from their children at all. In addition to the forced assimilation, Daniel's parents dissuade him from being a musician. They want him to follow in their footsteps. Both his biological and adoptive mothers had parents who expected little of them because of their gender. They were both were determined to shatter those low expectations, but it was still a source of resentment. Will Daniel ever grow comfortable in his own skin and learn to live for himself?

Over the years, he had thought about what his life would have been like if Mama and Leon hadn’t left, if Vivian hadn’t taken him to the foster care agency. It was like watching water spread across dry pavement, lines going in all directions. …. But today he could only see himself where he was right now, the particular set of circumstances that had trickled down to this particular life, that would keep trickling in new directions. .... All this time, he’d been waiting for his real life to begin: Once he was accepted by Roland’s friends and the band made it big. Once he found his mother. Then, things would change. But his life had been happening all along.

Did Peilan leave Deming by choice or was she taken from him by force? The Leavers is a thought-proving story about belonging, identity, and what it means to be a family. These flawed characters make awful choices and even made me angry sometimes, but I could understand how they evolved into the people they were and how they were able to rationalize their choices. The characters fool themselves to protect a life they've grown accustomed to, but they can never completely escape what they're running from, regardless of the distance they put between themselves and their problems.

The author Lisa Ko was inspired by a real-life story. Spoiler Alert: There are some parallels, so don't read if you haven't read the book!

I received this book for free from Netgalley and Algonquin Books. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. It's available now!
Profile Image for da AL.
366 reviews363 followers
March 14, 2018
The book itself was great in terms of subject matter and writing. The audio reader's 'everything through gritted teeth angst' took a while to see past, though.
Profile Image for Beverly.
808 reviews290 followers
September 20, 2019
I knew this would wreak havoc on my emotions and I was right. This is the story of a mother, Polly, and her beloved son, Deming, being separated and him not knowing where she was or what happened to her. Separation is devastating. How do you recover from that? Is it possible? And what if your loved one just vanished and no one could tell you what happened to them? Death is traumatic, but at least you know what occurred. Abandonment is soul crushing.

This is a story of family, community, and friends and how they help with a young boy's pain and loss and how Deming is able to become a fully functioning adult after lots of mistakes, but also learning along the way who he is, culturally, and what is best for him. It is also written beautifully and I felt like I truly knew and loved Polly and Deming. Polly is especially well presented; she is strong, determined and tenacious, but also fragile and broken. No one should have to go through what she did to make a life for yourself, but millions do everyday.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,137 reviews8,151 followers
August 18, 2017
The Leavers was a compelling novel that did an excellent job of putting me in the headspace of someone I don't identify with at all. Deming Guo is adopted by a white upper-middle class couple after his mother disappears from her job one day. The struggles of identity, trying to fit in, and coping with loss that Deming—later called Daniel—tries to navigate as he grows up in a new setting were all moving and relatable.

However, I felt by the end of the novel, there was a lot of repetition and I think this book would've been better with some editing. Nonetheless, the writing was strong, the story both sad and hopeful, and it showed me a side of the immigrant experience that I hadn't necessarily seen represented in literature before. 3.5 stars
Profile Image for Liz Overberg.
361 reviews31 followers
April 1, 2017
I wanted so much to love this book, but it fell flat for me. The scope is too large, encompassing Deming/Daniel's childhood and his present, as well as 23 years of his mother's life. The narrative jumps all over the place chronologically. It's difficult to like any of the characters, and every moment seems like a rock-bottom moment for someone. There was no build to a climax, with the whole book feeling like one big, dark depressing weight. I would have loved more information about Polly's experience with deportation, her efforts to find her son, and the American system that allowed Daniel/Deming to be adopted when he still had a living parent. I don't feel happy or satisfied or educated after reading this book, and would probably not recommend it to others.
Profile Image for Kat.
Author 8 books353 followers
May 4, 2023
Wow, “The Leavers” is a completely heartbreaking story that needs to be read, especially in today’s political climate. Deming/Daniel spends his childhood moving around… in New York, in China with his grandfather, then back to New York to be with his mother. Then one day his mother vanishes, and Deming is given up to foster care and adoption by a white couple.

It’s a heart-wrenching story, especially as the narrative unfolds and we learn the truth about what happened to Deming’s mother—who in his ten year old mind must have abandoned him—and the poverty she has struggled to escape her entire life. The emotional consequences of their separation, despite people trying to care for Deming in the aftermath, despite food and shelter being offered, are so poignantly rendered, and so critical to understand. 5/5 stars.

Profile Image for Marie.
143 reviews44 followers
December 16, 2017
Stunning, emotionally charged, socially critical novel about a young female Chinese woman and her American born son.  This novel tackles so much and does it well.  It takes place in China as well as in America.  The voice alternates from first person perspective of Peilan Guo and third person perspective of her son, Deming.

Peilan, fled China young and pregnant, in hopes of escaping the boy who impregnated her as well as the pregnancy, only to find she was a few weeks past 7 months and termination would be illegal.  Her son Deming is born and she falls in love with him, but finds there is no way to work with him alongside of her.   So like so many other Chinese refugees, she sends her son home to live with her father until he is of age to go to school.  He returns at age 6 and finds himself living with his mother, her boyfriend Leon, Leon's sister Vivian and Vivian's son Michael.  It's crowded and they are poor, but there is noise, friendship, sarcasm, and love aplenty.  Peilan and Deming play fun games with each other like choosing similar looking people to themselves to be their doppelgängers.  They create a whole story around this pair.  Michael and Deming are the best of friends.  Like brothers, they understand each other and look out for each other.

One day, Peilan goes to the nail salon where she works and she never returns.  This comes on the heels of an argument with Leon about her wanting to move to Florida and Leon not liking the idea.  No one knows where she has gone and it remains a mystery until the end of the novel.  Leon disappears, leaving for China, 6 months later.  Vivian is left alone with both Michael, Deming and Peilan's enormous debt.  The money is tight, there is little food and she is very stressed.  She ends up putting Deming in foster care and then signing him over for permanent placement.

Deming is fostered and then adopted by Kay and Peter and life in Ridgeborough, NY is stale and seemingly lonely.  They change Deming's name to Daniel, saying it will be easier for him that way.  He makes friends with Roland, a fellow musician who is Hispanic, so also seen as a "different" in this very Caucasian town.  Kay and Peter both work at the University, have no friends in town and have strong ideas about what their son should do and be as he grows up.

The novel takes off from this point, as Daniel struggles with his identity.  At the same time his mother, now Polly, has a completely new identity in China.  Daniel's life comes to an unravelling point as he makes poor choices with gambling and alcohol, seeming to purposely self-sabatoge.  Michael emails him, and after hesitating to respond, he reconnects with Michael which leads him ultimately to his mother.  He finally learns the truth about his mother, how the salon was raided and she spent 18 months in a detention camp prior to being deported.

I felt like I connected with the characters, found the novel incredibly engaging and I enjoyed the historical aspects and learning about the immigrant experience from this perspective.  Although extremely well done overall, there were a couple of holes in the story I didn't quite believe.  First, I wondered why no one ever went to the nail salon to learn what had happened.  Surely, someone must have known there.   I also wondered why Polly gave up on looking for Deming once she heard he had been adopted.  Yes, Leon felt that something inside Polly had broken, but she went from anguished over the loss to a new life very quickly.

For discussion questions, please see: http://www.book-chatter.com/?p=2583.
Profile Image for Kelli.
851 reviews395 followers
May 15, 2018
There have been slim pickings lately on Hoopla. Because of this, I’m listening to fiction as I fold laundry and do yard work and it isn’t going so well. There’s a lot wrapped up in the narrator and I often wonder how much that piece affects my rating. This is a review of the audio because especially with this story, I suspect had a read it, I may have enjoyed it more.

This story is sad and it’s a remarkably layered debut, but for me it lacked the haunting quality that allows a story to attach to the reader. I never felt invested in the characters. I enjoyed the development of the story but in the end, I was missing the emotional connection that most of my friends felt reading this.
3.5 stars
Profile Image for Sam.
142 reviews322 followers
March 7, 2017
He recalled how she and Peter had insisted on English, his new name, the right education. How better and more hinged on their ideas of success, their plans. Mama, Chinese, the Bronx, Deming: they had never been enough. He shivered, and for a brief, horrible moment, he could see himself the way he realized they saw him - as someone who needed to be saved.

Lisa Ko's The Leavers is such a raw, honest read, a novel of alienation and identity, adoption and duality and what it means to be family, that is well-written with frequent notes of humor and fun, all the while treating its characters with respect while showcasing their flaws and mistakes, their struggles and redemption. The prose is intelligent, the narrative flowing, and the main characters very compelling, coalescing into an easy, enjoyable yet enlightening and thought-provoking read. I'd give it 3.5 stars and round up to 4 stars: it's definitely not perfect and sometimes feels like a first novel with some pacing and structural incongruities, but the intelligence and interesting topics, plus the overall quality of the prose won me over and I'll be looking forward to Ko's future novels as well.

Our main character is Deming Guo / Daniel Wilkinson, though not far behind in importance is is mother, Peilan / Polly. We see flashes of both parts of Deming/Daniel's personality and past. As Deming, a young boy living in the Bronx with his mother, clearly struggling a bit to make ends meet on an undocumented nail technician's salary, but it's his life and he's grown to love it, with his beloved mother, her fun and caring boyfriend Leon, Leon's sister Vivian and her son Michael. And all of it comes undone the day Polly doesn't return from work, and for Deming, there's no trace of where she went or what happened to her. We're taken through his journey as he becomes Daniel, abandoned by the people who professed to love him and adopted at age eleven by a family with no children of their own, a family who believes they are prepared to love him and imprint their version of the American way upon him. And he's able to acquiesce to these well-meant wishes and desires, and submit to being Daniel Wilkinson for a time. But we all have to grow up sometime, and for Daniel, that means painful and poignant realizations and truths about himself and his adoptive family and his past.

After ten years he had stopped noticing how different they looked from him, but he hadn't seen them in two months, had been working and riding the subway and walking the streets with all kinds of people, and now they were the ones who seemed different - quieter, diminished, out of touch. This role reversal was unexpectedly fulfilling.

Deming / Daniel wrestles with who he is and who he should be through his childhood, adolescence, right up into the present of the novel as somewhat flailing, unconnected adult, who feels entirely alienated from the world around him, whether upstate at home with his adoptive parents increasingly disappointed in his choices and his divergence from their upbringing and values, or playing in a band and trying to socialize with his one friend from high school. He's creatively and personally stuck in neutral.

If only he had the right clothes, knew the right references, he would finally become the person he was meant to be... but no matter how many albums he acquired or playlists he artfully compiled, the real him remained stubbornly out there like a fat cruise ship on the horizon, visible but out of reach, and whenever he got closer it drifted farther away. He was forever waiting to get past the secret entrance, and when the ropes did part he could never fully believe he was in. Another door materialized, another rope to get past, always the promise of something better.

These are common sentiments for those approaching and just entering adulthood, in fiction and real life, but they take extra importance for Daniel, whose past as Deming he had seemingly erased to fit into his new life, and only now does the confusion and anger and despair fully set in, as he suspects he can't be or become who he is or should be, not without processing and understanding his mother's disappearance and his abandonment by her and those he called family, and reconciling all parts of his past and personality. And while I didn't always like Daniel/Deming as a character - he could irritate and frustrate me sometimes with his self-pitying behavior - I understood and empathized with him, and wanted to see where he'd end up and if he could escape his pain and confusion and become a full adult person.

If it were only from Daniel's perspective, Ko still would have written a great novel, but we also are treated to Polly / Peilan's viewpoint in first person, powerful and emotional and very relevant in today's endless political discussions about undocumented immigrants. Ko waits to provide Polly's perspective as Daniel / Deming starts to retrace her steps and put the pieces together about what happened to her (no spoilers from me), but hearing Deming's past in her voice, understanding her sharp intellect and fierce determination for a better life for her son and herself, getting a clearer glimpse of her own origins in China, and the anguish of how and why she left Deming behind creates a compelling character portrait, one I found I could empathize with as much as I did with Daniel / Deming.

In short, The Leavers wears many hats at once: a coming of age story, an immigrant story, a story of reconciling diverging parts of one's past and personality, a family epic. It worked for me because of the observant, insightful description and dialogue and flowing narrative of Lisa Ko, even if there were some structural or plot decisions that I felt could have been stronger or tightened up a bit. Four stars for me, strong recommend for lovers of contemporary fiction, family and immigrant stories, and coming of age / coming into one's own tales.
Profile Image for Dorie  - Cats&Books :).
994 reviews2,782 followers
March 29, 2017
It is hard to believe that this powerful, beautifully written and timely book is a debut novel. It was awarded the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.

The novel is told from two points of view. We learn about Deming’s life in the Bronx where he lives in a small apartment with his mother, Peilan/Polly, her boyfriend Leon, his sister, Vivian, and her son, Michael. It is a hard life, his mother always struggling to make ends meet on a nail technician’s salary. But Deming has grown used to the life he has and feels as though his mother might finally settle down with Leon and they can become a real family. All of this changes when one day she doesn’t return home from work. No amount of searching reveals what has happened to her. Deming is eventually adopted by two well meaning professors who change his name to Daniel and try to give him a good life in a nice home in the suburbs. Daniel, however never feels that he fits in the suburb of Ridgeborough and this school and when his is almost 18 he leaves. He eventually goes to China to try to find his roots, his mother and eventually Leon.

It isn’t until the last quarter of the book that we learn what happened to Peilan/Polly when she narrates the book in first person. The truth is a revelation in what she has had to endure to survive in China. Deming lives with her for a while but eventually returns to the Bronx and his old friend Michael and begins to figure out where he belongs and what he wants to do with his life.

“An emotionally harrowing debut novel that explores assimilation and loss, immigration and homeland, independence and connection.”

I would recommend this book to everyone, especially those who enjoy historical fiction and reading about issues which are very timely right now.

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher, thank you.

Profile Image for Stephanie Anze.
657 reviews112 followers
October 28, 2017
Deming Guo lives with his mom Polly, her boyfriend Leon, and his family in a cramped apartment in New York. Every morning Polly leaves to work at a nail salon. One day, Polly does not come back home and her whereabouts are unknown. Deming stays with Leon's family for some time longer but soon the financial burden is too much and he is placed in foster care. Eventually he is adopted by two white college professors, who change his name to Daniel Wilkinson and move him to the suburbs. No longer sure of his identity, he struggles to find himself.

This novel deals with some hefty subject matters: illegal immigration, race, debt, identity and abandonment. Polly, whose name used to be Peilan, arrived in New York from China at 17 years old, was pregnant, alone, illegal and owning thousands of dollars to a loan shark. She struggles to make ends meet, working menial jobs that barely were enough to sustain herself, let alone pay off her debt. This gut wrenching narrative depicts the struggles of living day to day with no real sense of security. Deming is her life but she has to make some complicated decisions regarding his care. When she fails to come home, Deming's life makes a dramatic turn. He goes from being Deming Guo, a Chinese-American boy to Daniel, the adopted son of Kay and Peter Wilkinson. Though their intentions were good, they were off base thinking that Daniel only needed to become "Americanized" to resolve his situation. Due to the drastic change, Deming/Daniel struggles and makes mistakes, some pretty big mistakes. He simply does not know who he is, just what others want him to be. Most characters in the novel were flawed in some fundamental way and wether that was due to circumstance, personal choice or a mix of both, it made them real. Raw, poignant, honest and intense this was a great book.

The narrative of this novel is somewhat based on the real life story of Xiu Ping Jiang. Originally from China, Xiu immigrated to the US fleeing a difficult past (will not go into details for that would spoil the book but I strongly encourage you to look up her story, its quite powerful). This novel is timely for immigration, particularly illegal immigration, is a hot button issue right now. The truth is that immigration is not a simple matter, its in a vast gray area and therefore not easily solved. If the only thing this book achieves is to encourage conversation and discussion, than that will be quite alot. Its not just about laws, its about people and humanity. I am glad I read this and would recommend that others do too.
Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,036 reviews672 followers
July 18, 2018
This novel is about the ones who leave, and the ones who have been left, focusing primarily on a mother and son.  There are myriad meanings to a life left behind.  A young boy, set adrift, questioning his worth, unable to find what he truly wants out of life.

Catch a whiff of a bus that smells like feet, try not to breathe as you make your way up a street that reeks of 'flatulent exhaust' fumes.  I love this type of writing, but I wasn't wild about the novel overall.  Couldn't find my rhythm with the characters, and I was very ready to move on to something else. 
Profile Image for Laura.
69 reviews38 followers
December 14, 2022
3.5 rounded up to 4

This is a hard book to rate. I loved the mother/son dynamic and vivid imagery when describing China and New York. The characters were well developed, and I enjoyed the exploration of transracial adoption.

What I didn’t love was the pacing and nonlinear timeline. I think the book could have used a little editing.

Overall, it was a good debut novel, and I would definitely check out future novels by this author.
Profile Image for Debra .
2,296 reviews35k followers
June 7, 2017
One morning Deming (Daniel) Guo's Mother, Peilan (Polly) goes to work at the nail salon where she is employed and does not return. For awhile Deming (Daniel) continues to live in the home they shared with Polly's boyfriend, his sister and her son. Just where did Polly go? Before she went missing she was talking about moving to Florida to earn more money and have a higher standard of living. She wanted the American dream of having a better life for her and her son. Having a better life was hard as she was an undocumented Chinese immigrant.

Initially no one really knows where Polly went. Did she leave? Did she abandon her son? Is she in Florida? Is she alive? Why did she leave without telling anyone? What will happen to her son? Who will look after him? All Deming/Daniel knows is that his Mother is gone. He thinks that if he becomes a better student, she will return. She doesn't return and one day, Vivian (Polly's boyfriend's Sister) takes him for a walk. A walk that ends with him being placed in Foster care. This is a hard and confusing adjustment for Daniel (previously Deming). He is a child, he does not know where his Mother is or why she never came home. His foster parents also have an adjustment to cope with. They have been married and child free for twenty years. Are they making the right decisions? Are they suited to be parents?

Daniel grows up with pressure to do well academically and struggles tremendously with this goal. He also wants to pursue music and has a problem with gambling. He is a lost young man, unsure of himself in the world and with questions that have never been answered.

But then there is his Mother's story. Polly was an unwed Mother at the age of nineteen. She worked hard to make a life for her and her son. She had to send her son to live with her father until she could afford to raise him. She wanted to be a good Mother but fate was not on her side. She wants to go to Florida in order to have a better life. She works hard at the nail salon and has no idea that one day her life will be changed forever.

From the title it is obvious this book is about leaving. What does it mean to leave a place you call home behind? To leave those you love behind? To leave your hopes and dreams behind? What does moving on entail? There are a lot of themes in this book: immigration, family (what makes a family), hope, new beginnings, deep sadness, identity, loss, etc.

This is one of those book, that stays with you after you read it. I found that I liked the book more after I sat and thought about it. There were parts I enjoyed more than others. I enjoyed learning Polly's tale more than Daniel, mainly in part because it answered some questions for me. This is a debut book which is quite impressive as it is very polished. The above mentioned themes along with the story-telling are what shine in this book. Where Polly went is not a real mystery or surprise here. I think most readers will have figured out what happened, but the magic of this book is about how it affected a young boy/man's life. How one's path in life can be changed. How does one cope when their life changes instantly? How does one cope when their name is changed? When their idea of family is changed? What happens when you are removed from one culture and placed in another? That is where the magic in this book occurs.

I received a copy of this book from Algonquin Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

See more of my reviews at www.openbookpost.com
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