The Year She Left Us is a first-rate novel from a first-time novelist. Using the western adoption of Chinese girls as a plot device, it examines issues of abandonment, adoption and assimilation; the relationships among mothers, daughters, and sisters; and, like Mary Karr’s memoir, the impact of “lies of omission” on a family.
The Year She Left Us is the story of Ari, her mother Charlie, her aunt Les and her Gran — the Kong women. Gran was born and raised in China, coming to the US immediately after WWII to attend Bryn Mawr and create a new life. Charlie and Les were born and raised in San Francisco, Chinese American women who both became lawyers. Charlie works as a public defender, Les as a judge with ambitions for the federal bench. Neither of the daughters ever married, but Charlie became a single mother when she adopted Ari from China. Ari was abandoned, like many females, shortly after being born, and is part of a group of girls in San Francisco known as “Whackadoodles,” which stands for Western-Adopted Chinese Daughters (WACD). When the novel begins, we know that Ari, now 18, has been on a trip to China and returned early with a chunk of her pinky missing. She is evasive about what happened there but wants to go back, and increasingly distances herself from Charlie and her friend AJ, a fellow Whackadoodle. When Ari discovers a secret about her mother’s past, she runs away from home on a quest that takes her to Alaska. As the Kong women deal with this situation, more secrets are revealed, shaking the foundations of the family. Will sister break from sister? Will mothers and daughters be reconciled?
The narration shifts among the four Kong women, and the reader gets to know their secrets. Ma does an excellent job of creating characters who can be both likable and irritating (as family often are) while also revealing the bonds that hold them together. Charlie, single mom and public defender, is the nurturer. Les is the judge and is judgmental; she relishes a challenge and doesn’t seem to care what others think of her. Gran, while proud of her family’s past, thinks it’s a waste of time to look back. When she moved to the US, she didn’t mourn what was left behind.
I face forward and get on with life again. I’ve always told my girls to follow my example. Write it all down and then throw it away, or if you can’t dispose of it, at least try to hide it. Why nurse the pain of the past? You’re better off walking away. There is nothing to be done about it. Some things you must abandon.
Ari is drawn in by Gran’s thinking, particularly given some of her early experiences with the Whackadoodles. The parents involved in that group, mostly white, always want their girls to stay connected to China and their cultural heritage, to visit their former orphanages, to be comfortable with their “forever families.” Charlie, the only Chinese American adopting a Chinese child, actively joins in with the Whackadoodle parents and their activities. At one point Les remarks, “‘I think it’s bizarre that all these white families celebrate Chinese holidays that hardly any Chinese Americans pay attention to.” And Ari notes, “We might visit Chinatown, but we weren’t of Chinatown. Cultural heritage had its limits…. Here I lived in a city full of Chinese but I was still an outsider, set apart from most.”
Ari occupies an unusual position. Adopted by a Chinese American, she seems to have no roots. The Kongs aren’t terribly interested in their Chinese heritage. Charlie and Les don’t question Gran much about the past and Gran likes it that way. Ari’s Whackadoodle friends seem to have assimilated better not because of their parents’ insistence on ramming Chinese culture down their throats but because they had other family roots to graft onto. For example, two of Ari’s buddies were adopted by Jewish families. They are practicing Jews, they make their Bat Mitzvahs, etc. What Charlie interprets as Ari’s quest for a better family is a search for identity and roots. Her Gran tells her to look forward, as she has done. “The future holds promise while the past is full of ghosts. But Ari looked back, and that’s when the trouble began.”
Is it possible to leave one’s past behind? Is it wise to try to do so? The Whackdoodles and Gran seem to represent two extremes. Gran has a real past with names, dates, history that she ignores, while the Whackadoodle parents try to manufacture a meaningful history for their daughters. Knowing what to leave behind and what to bring along is a tricky business.
There is a considerable amount of pain and heartache for everyone before the novel reaches its resolution. Overall, I found the premise of The Year She Left Us to be ingenious and the execution outstanding. Recommended reading.