This was a book club selection about a story that encompasses what for many of us would be the ultimate nightmare. What if your only parent abandoned you? What if you lost your beloved child? It concerns Deming and Polly Guo, sometime residents of China and New York and about their identity as immigrants or as rural Chinese. Polly has Deming out of wedlock in the U.S. and sends him to be cared for by her father in China, having him return when Deming is nearly five years old. Then she abandons him again when he is 11, an act that Deming (who is adopted and renamed Daniel) doesn’t comprehend.
The first part of the book is all in Deming/Daniel’s point of view. He’s not doing so well. Despite having affluent adoptive parents, he is unwilling or unable to attain their version of success. He’s dropped out of college and is dropping the ball on their carefully-finagled second chance. He’s underemployed and nearly broke, living in New York with a band that may or may not take off and a mountain of hidden gambling debts. I kind of understood, because it has to suck to be abandoned by your mother. I also kind of hated him for being such a screw up and disappointing those who cared about him.
The second half of the book is from Deming’s mother’s perspective. Or, to be more accurate, his mothers’ perspectives. It tells the story of Kay, and about how she wanted to adopt a child and about how she felt about Deming/Daniel. She’s sympathetic, even when she’s making decisions that show her blindness to Daniel’s particular pain. The novel also deals quite a bit with Polly/Peilian’s story. It has a long way to go to make her sound sympathetic. Most people respond to a mother abandoning her child with revulsion; that is considered nearly unforgivable (while a father abandoning his family isn’t good, but so common as to be unremarkable.) We hear how hard Polly has to struggle, as a rural Chinese citizen illegally working in the city, as an illegal immigrant working in New York, and what happens to her after. Would any of us, the reader wonders, have fared better?
Perhaps obviously, racism and bigotry both subtle and overt is a recurring theme in the novel. The characters are often categorized as being the wrong kind of people. Rural Chinese is not as prestigious as city Chinese. Legal immigrant isn’t the same as illegal. Mandarin is better than Funzhouese. Outside of New York isn’t as good as New York, and within New York, Manhattan is better than the outer boroughs. There’s a lot of subtle bigotry, for example when Kay and Peter pressure Daniel to get a college degree, not realizing that their ideas of the superiority of college education implicitly imply that the place Daniel came from is inferior. They want to save him from his culture. There’s also the amusing way people treat exotic cultures; the New York diners are wondering if their Chinese food is “authentic” while the Chinese people Daniel encounters take him to an “authentic” New York style pizzeria.
This is really everything you want in a novel. It’s got a compelling story, believable and complex characters, and enough new ideas to bring up thoughts and discussion.