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The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Literary fiction

The Leavers

We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Lisa Ko, on your first book!

by Lisa Ko

Quick take

The Leavers is about belonging, and who we are when we lose the people who make us, well, ourselves.

Why I love it

Elizabeth Kiefer
Refinery 29

There’s no better time to read a powerful book than when the world feels cold and unfriendly. While using fiction as an escape from reality is incredibly rewarding on its own, what’s even better is when a novel’s lessons lift from the pages and inform our lives with renewed compassion.

On the surface, The Leavers is a novel about a mother and son who are separated by forces more powerful than their blood bond. Deming is a good kid growing up in the Bronx, the child of an undocumented Chinese immigrant. He is devastated when one day his mother disappears, without explanation or a trace. He will spend the next decade carrying the heartache of this abandonment.

But that’s only a piece of Lisa Ko’s provocative story. The Leavers is also about the very concept of ""us" versus "them"" about belonging, and who we are when we lose the people who make us, well, ourselves. It’s about immigration and cultural barriers, the promise of the American dream and the less talked about way it can devolve into an American nightmare.

Deming is adopted by well-meaning but dense parents, renamed 'œDaniel Wilkinson' and moved from his neighborhood to a white suburb upstate, where he stands out as a minority and struggles to fit in. He’ll later return to his roots on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (right near Chinatown) as an angry young man seeking to reconnect with his core identity.

Which brings us to a third theme of the novel: a complex portrait of a woman thrust into motherhood when she isn’t yet ready. Polly adores her son, yet resents the burden he places on her existence. She cannot imagine living without him'”until she has no other choice. So rarely are we allowed to focus on female ambivalence about motherhood. In this incredible novel, we get that'”and so very, very much more.

I read this book over the course of a single weekend, so don’t say I didn’t warn you: Once you pick it up and get through a chapter, you’re probably in it for the long haul. But I can’t think of a better way to wile away the hours at the moment, so here is my recommendation: Turn off the news. Forget about Twitter for a couple days. Steep yourself in a story that’s different from your own. I promise, you’ll learn something. I certainly did '” and what’s more, is that reading The Leavers reminded me of how much listening to narratives of others, both for pleasure and for understanding, I still need to do.

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

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind.

Told from the perspective of both Daniel'”as he grows into a directionless young man'”and Polly, Ko’s novel gives us one of fiction’s most singular mothers. Loving and selfish, determined and frightened, Polly is forced to make one heart-wrenching choice after another.

Set in New York and China, _The Leavers_ is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.

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Member thoughts

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All (2088)
Love (831)
Like (1037)
Dislike (220)
2222 ratings
  • 37% Love
  • 47% Like
  • 10% Dislike
  • Mesa, AZ

    The music is described as colors which is both insightful and descriptive. This is a frustrating story to read, especially given the current immigration crisis. I have recommended this book to famil

  • Philadelphia , PA

    Lisa Ko did an excellent job of weaving the past and present together, I loved the timing shifts. I wish Ko would have described more of the main character's inner thoughts, not just his insecurities.

  • Washington, DC

    This is a powerful novel of identity and family that drew me in with deep, intense characters. Ko took us through surprising twists and turns of family dynamics that left me tearing up in the airport!

  • Brooklyn, NY

    I knew nothing of Chinese culture and lifestyle even within the city I’ve lived my whole life - I have gained a tremendous respect for all Chinese people and have gained new perspective of my world.

  • Winter Garden, FL

    This was an INCREDIBLY thought-provoking book. It brought up relevant immigration issues, adoption, and ethical considerations in both. Not only that, but it was a deeply emotional and personal story.

  • Pittsburgh, PA

    This is such a beautifully written book, about finding where you fit into a world that seems to have not have a place for you, a world that shaped you in a way you didn't want it to shape you. Perfect

  • Cincinnati , OH

    Granted me empathy for the plight of immigrants, as well as adoptive parents and the adopted. Relatable- desire to belong and struggle to find right path, when often it's more about CREATING that path

  • Henrietta, NY

    I loved every part of this book, from the first chapter until the last. A heart wrenching story of loss, told from the POV of mother and son. The way the stories parallel then come together is amazing

  • Austin, TX

    So painfully, thoroughly human. It's a rare gift to find a clear eyed portrayal of ambivalent motherhood and emotional ties. I enjoyed that it didn't give easy answers. Best thing I've read this year.

  • Peekskill, NY

    This book surpassed my expectations. One of the editors reviewed the novel and said the reader would get more and more attached with every page turn is this is more than true! The novel is enticing.

  • oakland, CA

    So refreshing to see some variation in the great American immigrant story. Dimensional characters and fresh perspectives make this a wonderful read. Thanks to B. Kingsolver for the Bellwether prize!

  • Portland, OR

    Love. This. Book. The story, the mystery, the characters and their carefully constructed development.. family, home, and self all seen through the eyes of both an immigrant and an adoptee~ stellar!

  • New York, NY

    My favorite detail throughout the novel is Daniel/Deming's relationship with music and how it's translated in his mind as specific colors. Also, how mother and son mirror each other, flaws and all.

  • Marcellus, NY

    I love reading about cultures beyond my own. This story shows us how gray (rather than black and white) family can be. The main character makes us mad and sad and empathetic and wondering the truth.

  • Fort Myers, FL

    This book is beautifully written. I experienced the heartbreak, fear and anger of Deming, and the anguish of Polly, as this story developed. My eyes are opened to the struggles of immigrants in USA.

  • West Baden , IN

    Amazing! Everytime I thought I figured out a character or why they did something...the author would come out of nowhere with something else...this book made me think, made me cry and made me smile.

  • Buffalo , NY

    LOVED this book. great account of an adopted child growing up in a white family and losing his Chinese roots, and then trying to reconnect with them through his mother who has left him. sad/hopeful

  • Pensacola, FL

    Connected with each character in the novel including their failed attempts to squeeze meaning out of the situations they faced. The juxtaposition or right/wrong kept me deeply engaged in the story.

  • New York, NY

    The adoption story feels very close to me right now since two very close friends are going through that process at this moment. It was great to have the point of view of all parties of an adoption.

  • Chicago, IL

    What an incredible book! So many families are being broken up due to our crappy immigration system and this book captures not only the physical separation but the mental and psychological anguish.

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