Thoroughly researched and ambitious in scope, Ko’s book ably depicts the many worlds Deming’s life encompasses: As he switches cultures and milieus, Ko tackles the school scene, the music scene, the Bronx, and upstate New York, not to say Fuzhou and Beijing. And she draws on our sympathies: It is impossible not to root for a boy so foundationally unmoored by circumstance. Moreover, Deming’s feisty mother is compellingly complicated: Polly Guo has an itch for freedom she cannot ignore. Indeed, the greatest strength of the book lies in its provocative depiction of a modern Chinese woman uninterested in traditional roles of any kind. What she makes of herself, and what we might make of her, are of interest from any number of angles.
Yet rather than mine this richly unsettling territory, Ko contrives things such that not all Polly’s actions — including her effective abandonment of Deming — turn out to be her fault. Is hers a cost-free freedom? And why is her penchant for freedom made so much of, if it is without consequence? Where Deming’s story, too, eventually devolves into a conventional narrative of a young person learning to follow his bliss, it’s hard not to see this book as one that takes risks but then hedges its bets.
Missing as well is the defining sensibility — the heedless enchantment, the uncanny attunement, the magisterial iconoclasm — that finally marks our most worthwhile fiction. Instead, we have info-stuffed passages like this exchange between Kay and Peter:
“‘You’re at school all day. Are you sure you can’t work here at least part of the time? We have a study, you can write there.’
“‘Let’s not go through all this again,’ Peter said. ‘You know this is an important semester for me.’
“‘It’s not like they’re going to decide to not make you department chair because you come home early once in a while. Work-life balance. You’ve been there forever, they know you and your work. That’s not about to change.’”
Might we not like to see more art, with less matter?
It is still heartening to see a novel put a human face on migration, and perhaps in future books, this budding novelist’s true promise will be realized. Meanwhile, Lisa Ko has taken the headlines and reminded us that beyond them lie messy, brave, extraordinary, ordinary lives.