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Editorial Reviews Review

Excerpted from a Conversation Between Yiyun Li and Mona Simpson

MS: The organization of both your novels emanates from a central, extremely dramatic event. The structure is almost a wheel, with spokes coming out from a center. The motors in your stories feel very different. Can you talk about how an idea settles in you for a novel? Is it different with stories?

YL: I love the description of a wheel with spokes coming out, and indeed both of my novels open with a death that the novel and the characters have to make sense of and deal with in all kinds of ways. For me, a novel starts with a situation, and a story starts with a character or a set of characters more than a situation. Kinder Than Solitude started with the situation that a woman was poisoned yet lived in a prolonged state of unnecessary misery for twenty-three years. Who was she? Who were the people involved? Why did the case remain unresolved? And what happened when the woman eventually died? These questions from that central situation were all mysteries to me when I started the novel.

MS: Beijing is almost a character in this novel, as it is in a few of your recent short stories. What is it like writing about Beijing in English for an English speaking audience?

YL: I once wrote to a friend and said that this novel was going to be my love letter to Beijing. I have given my fondest memories of Beijing to the three characters when they were teenagers, not only the tourist sites Boyang and Moran took Ruyu to see, but also the fabric of everyday life: old men sitting under a tree and expecting a fresh and forgettable story from Ruyu; Boyang and Moran on bicycles, free as Mongolian children on horsebacks; puddles after the rain; watermelon rinds rotting by the roadside.

Several Westerners living in Beijing have commented to me that the city I write about is mostly gone, and it is true, but its people haven’t changed much. Human nature evolves much more slowly than a city does, which is heartening. That’s why I love to read Jane Austen and Dickens. So writing about Beijing in English is like writing about California in English: the landscapes are characters that interact with the people.

MS: What does being a Chinese writer writing in English mean in terms of identity? We're each odd examples of global modernity. (I'm half Syrian, though I grew up in the US and write in English.)

YL: As novelists, we are transparent so our characters won’t be. I think this global world seems to make it even easier for a writer to blend in and to be invisible: I don’t call myself a Chinese writer, or an American writer, or a Chinese-American writer, because I don’t feel the pressure to solve my identity; my only urgency is to stay as un-intrusive as possible when I write about the characters.

MS: You're a Chinese woman living in America, and you've cited William Trevor as your primary teacher. Which cultural lineage seems most significant to you: your national history or your literary legacy?

YL: I often think of one’s national history as one’s genes: something given, something predetermined. Literary legacy is, at least in my case, a choice. I only started writing in my late 20s, and by then I could decide whom to include in my literary genes: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Elizabeth Bowen, and of course William Trevor who, as you mentioned, is a primary influence. So my literary legacy comes from Irish literature and Russian literature.

MS: You’ve recently become a US citizen. Have you been sworn in? It's hard to imagine either Ruyu or Moran becoming naturalized.

YL: I became a citizen in August, 2012, and yes, I have been sworn in. I think I knew the immigration status of both Ruyu and Moran—they are American citizens—and yet I refrained from making it too obvious in the novel. For Moran, her citizenship offers psychological shelter from the violence she does not understand; for Ruyu, the citizenship is, like everything else in her life, something she accepts and can discard without a second thought. In a deeper sense, however, both of them are so bound to the past that it is hard to imagine that becoming American citizens would change them in any fundamental way.

From Booklist

Boyang enjoys his affluence in China’s new economy, playing sugar daddy and driving a luxury car. When an old friend, Shaoai, dies 21 years after she’s poisoned, his thoughts return to the Beijing of his childhood. He shares a burden of guilt with Ruyu and Moran, girls who grew up alongside him and have since fled to America; all three played roles in Shaoai’s poisoning. Li’s fourth work of fiction gives readers the trappings of a murder mystery with none of the dull formula. Instead, she burrows deeply into the minds of her characters. Her prose, by turns sumptuous and austere, is utterly precise, whether describing a crematorium, a roasted yam, or midwestern snowfall. A brilliant, sorrowful, and unpredictable novel. --Jackie Thomas-Kennedy

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (February 25, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400068142
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400068142
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #467,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. She has received fellowships and awards from Lannan Foundation and Whiting Foundation. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. Her novel, The Vagrants, won the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction, and was shortlisted for Dublin IMPAC Award. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, her second collection, was a finalist of Story Prize and shortlisted for Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. MacArthur Foundation named her a 2010 fellow. She is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their two sons, and teaches at University of California, Davis.

Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 33 people found the following review helpful By booksandbliss VINE VOICE on February 5, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I won't summarize the story as other reviewers have done so. Instead I'll give my impressions of the mood of the book so you can decide if this is something that you would enjoy.

I've loved Yiyun Li's short stories and admired her writing for a long time, so much so that when this book came out I snatched it up immediately.

What I found compelling about the book was, besides her writing, the psychological depth. This is not a mystery in the traditional or commercial sense. Rather, it's a quiet examination of how the death of a close friend, under suspicious and unconfirmed circumstances, impacts three young people as they grow into adulthood. The book alternates among the three characters and goes back and forth between the present and past, until we see, near the end, the events leading up to the poisoning of the deceased friend. The chapters dealing with the present show how these teens, now adults, are coping through the choices they have made in their lives. All have failed marriages. All are dealing with self-isolation of one sort or another.

The reason I say in my subject heading that this book is not for everybody is that it is a "slow," contemplative read. Another reviewer used the word "introspective" and I very much agree with that description. Take this passage, about Moran's decision to stick with her Chinese name in America rather than using an English name:

"If forgetting is the art of eliminating a person, a place, from one's history, Moran knew that she would never become a master of it. Rather, she was like a diligent craftsman, and never gave up a moment of vigilance in practicing the lesser art of not looking back, not thinking about the past.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Laurence R. Bachmann VINE VOICE on January 8, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Generally, I think there are two kinds of great writers. The first engages one emotionally, often by creating characters with stories we love or care about--everyone from Tennessee Williams' fragile and breakable Katherine to Chabon's Kavalier and Clay, ordinary jerks muddling their way through monumental times. These are the writers we think speak to us, whom we trust, believing they would know and like us as well.

The second group are the philosophers, those who consider us "warts and all" but somehow manage to focus most especially upon the warts making disquieting observations about our selves. Everyone from Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov to Updike's commercial and self-absorbed Rabbit. One instinctively knows these writers wouldn't much like us or we them, for that matter.

Of these two broad characters Yiyun Li fits firmly in the second camp. Her gripping and powerful new work, Kinder Than Solitude is a brilliant meditation on human fear, cowardice, deception and ruthlessness. Using the Rashoman starting point of different people telling the story of a murder (Li's poison victim, more tragically, lives on 20 years but so devastatingly diminished as to be a jerking, slobbering corpse) gone awry.

The influence of Kurasowa's Rashoman and perhaps even Iain Pear's medieval mystery Instance of the Fingerpost is clear. But I was struck by the author's keen debt to Faulkner, particularly his brilliant observation "the past is never dead. It isn't even past.". This, in a nutshell, sums up Kinder Than Solitude. The remainder of the story is the delineation of lives of three childhood acquaintances, impacted by the the tragedy of an attempted murder and the realization which one of them is to blame.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Viviane Crystal VINE VOICE on January 11, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The choice to be a conformist, protestor or apathetic young man or woman during the years surrounding the horrific Tiananmen Square uprising was pivotal for one’s self and its impact on family and communities throughout China. So Yiyun Li chooses Boyang, Ryu, Shaoai, Moran, Celia and Sizhuo as representative youth who over a span of twenty years reveal how insidious the impact of that dramatic time was on the human personality. It’s a remarkable transformation that is unique for its successes and failures, producing outlooks that are idiosyncratic to readers of the Western world.
The novel focuses on an act of poisoning one of our central characters. The question is implied by many as to who was responsible for that deed that mentally and emotionally crippled Shaoai, a formerly phenomenally intelligent young woman who has now, twenty years after a crippled life, died. A telegram is sent to mark the death but the responses or lack thereof are also unexpected.
Orphaned as a child, Ryu was raised by two “great-aunts” who taught her to disdain excesses of emotion, a Spartan-type training that never fails to upend the reactions of her friends and acquaintances. Moran is a friendly, outgoing young woman who is practically undone by the apathy of Ryu, the sarcasm and bitterness of Shaoai, and the denial of Boyang’s connection to her. Boyang wants the best of both worlds, a world of dalliance with a free spirit woman but also a woman who will allow him to experience the heights and depths of meaning, a search that has thus far proved futile.
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