Books We Loved, May 2021
Chang-Rae Lee, My Year Abroad (Riverhead Books, 2021)
My Year Abroad is divided into chapters describing narrator Tiller Bardmon’s life in the present and his adventures over the course of the year just preceding it. Presently, Tiller, a twenty-year-old college dropout, is living in a run-down New Jersey town with Val, a women in her thirties, and Val’s eight-year-old son, Victor Jr. The three met in a Hong Kong Airport food court—just as Tiller was wrapping up his year abroad—and decided to become a family of sorts. In the year abroad chapters, Tiller, who is one-eighth Korean, is traveling through Asia with Pong, a very successful and somewhat dazzling Chinese American entrepreneur who seduces Tiller with assurances that Tiller (whose mother abandoned him and whose father lives in his own small world) is worthy … and ready to learn everything Pong can teach him.
Both plots are dangerous in different ways. Val is in a witness protection program (due to complications concerning her husband’s disappearance) and is supposed to be keeping a low profile. And Tiller himself, having learned far too much from Pong and his cronies in the past year, is keeping his head low too. But when Victor, Val’s kid, begins to show an enormous talent for cooking and neighbors start coming to the house in droves to sample it, the chances of staying undercover are threatened. On top of that, Val seems bent on destroying the best things in her life—and the burden falls on young Tiller to keep her from doing so. In the alternative chapters, which take place mostly in China, the dangers—having to do with crooked business transactions and the betrayals that allow for them—are shocking.
Lee’s writing and plotting are extravagant here, more so than in any of his other books. The meals Victor Jr. cooks are spectacular, beyond what any eight-year-old kid could ever come up with. The sex events that Tiller observes—and eventually participates in—during his year abroad are also outsized. Everything that happens, in fact, in both the present and the past, is at least a bit beyond belief. But it all adds up to a joyride of a read. There’s plenty here for fans used to Lee’s lush details, his remarkable I’d-know-him-if-I-met-him-on-the-street character development and his favorite themes of identity and alienation, but they will have to drink them in while sitting at the edge of their seats, traveling at warp speed through some wildly inventive plotting.—JS
Jeannie Lin, The Hidden Moon (Jeannie Lin, 2020)
I found this self-published author (since snapped up by Harlequin) through the New York Times Book Review, an outcome that many of us struggling to break out of obscurity would cherish. The two books that precede this one are The Lotus Palace and The Jade Temptress, which I also read and loved. (The series also includes a novella, The Liar’s Dice, published in 2017 and a prequel to this story.) All four are set in Changan, the capital of Tang Dynasty China (ca. 850 AD).
Earlier books follow the lives of Yue-ying, a maid in a high-class brothel, and her mistress, Mingyu, star courtesan of the Lotus Palace. Their relationship turns out to be closer than anyone would expect from that opening, but it would be a spoiler to reveal exactly what it is. It plays out against a backdrop in which Mingyu twice manages to get herself into situations where the authorities suspect her of murder, a serious threat in a society where indictment usually means conviction and constables have no qualms about beating the “truth” out of prisoners so that cases can be solved as quickly as possible.
But the murders, cunning and well motivated as they are, take second place to the emotional development of these women and their romances with socially unsuitable men. In The Hidden Moon, the heroine is Lady Bai Wei-ling, known as Wei-wei, the younger sister of the man who falls for Yue-ying, himself a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel who plays the fool but turns out to have hidden depths.
When Wei-Wei’s brother solicits her help in his case—the assassination of a high-ranking government figure—she teams up with Gao, the street hustler she met in The Liar’s Dice. Here, too, the attraction between them has no future in a society where rank is everything, but we can guess that Wei-wei will escape her family’s chosen match and chart her own path to happiness. The fun is in discovering how she succeeds—and in figuring out who stands behind that assassination, since in this book the crime definitely takes center stage.—CPL
Jordan Rosenfeld, Forged in Grace (i.v.ink, 2013)
Forged in Grace, the genre-blending psychological thriller from Jordan Rosenfeld, throws in an element of the supernatural. In the tradition of novels like Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and Grace by Paul Lynch, our narrator suffers great physical pain, as well as her share of psychological torments, only to find some measure of healing in the end.
When we first meet Grace, she lives a stultifying life with her ailing mother, a packrat who shops compulsively. Though Grace’s mother is flawed, she provides the only emotional support for her daughter, who was disfigured in a fire and feels pain whenever she is touched. Grace has a love interest, the doctor she works for, but conscious of her shocking appearance and her inability to bear physical contact, she keeps her distance.
Her life changes when her best friend from adolescence gets back in touch. Marly, who was with Grace when the fire occurred, is a magnetic but troubled figure. Grace, feeling abandoned and lonely, responds to Marly’s renewed contact without asking too many questions. Soon she’s ensconced in Marly’s pristine, all-white apartment in Las Vegas, so different from the cluttered chaos of her mother’s place. When Marly is battered by an ex-boyfriend, Grace reaches out to her friend and discovers she has amazing healing powers in her hands.
Marly, an extroverted promoter, is determined to win Grace a measure of economic freedom and renown by presenting her gift to the world. But Marly is a complicated figure, with her own share of psychological wounds, complicated by a chemical imbalance. Though it seems that Marly has become Grace’s champion, turning her from a recluse into a celebrity, it will be Marly who needs rescuing—again and again.
This book was a real page turner with heart. As secret after secret is revealed, motivations become clearer, but so do the pressures that each character has been under. No one sets out to ruin anyone else’s life. Consequences unfold as a result of bad decisions and inadequate support. Healing arrives when we are able to forgive.—GM