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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

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Quick take

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


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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The Leavers

From chapter one:

The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue hat sat low on her forehead, scarf around her neck like a big brown snake. "What are you waiting for, Kid? It's cold out."

He stood in the doorway of P.S. 33 as she zipped his coat so hard the collar pinched. "Did you get off work early?" It was four thirty, already dark, but she didn't usually leave the nail salon until six.

They spoke, as always, in Fuzhounese. "Short shift. Michael said you had to stay late to get help on an assignment." Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses, and he couldn't tell if she bought it or not. Teachers didn't call your mom when you got detention, only gave a form you had to return with a signature, which he forged. Michael, who never got detention, had left after eighth period, and Deming wanted to get back home with him, in front of the television, where, in the safety of a laugh track, he didn't have to worry about ever letting anyone down.

Snow fell like clots of wet laundry. Deming and his mother walked up Jerome Avenue. In the back of a concrete courtyard three older boys were passing a blunt, coats unzipped, wearing neither backpacks nor hats, sweet smoke and laughter warming the thin February air. "I don't want you to be like that," she said. "I don't want you to be like me. I didn't even finish eighth grade."

What a sweet idea, not finishing eighth grade. He could barely finish fifth. His teachers said it was an issue of focus, of not applying himself. Yet when he tripped Travis Bhopa in math class Deming had been as shocked as Travis was.

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Why I love it

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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Member ratings (2,589)

  • Justin Z.

    New London, CT

    This was a brilliant, sad, beautiful read. I don’t know what I was expecting from the synopsis but found I could not put it down or stop thinking about it long after I tore through it for a 2nd time!

  • Sheri G.

    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.

  • Cora H.

    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.

  • Sara P.

    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

  • Leslie G.

    Roscoe, IL

    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

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