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Harmless Like You: A Novel Hardcover – February 28, 2017
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“Buchanan’s prose is visceral, startling and mind-bendingly gorgeous. . . .worth reading for the beauty and originality of the prose, for the questions Buchanan raises about art and heritage, and for the characters who are sometimes as maddening as they can be magnificent.”
- Boston Globe
“Buchanan's prose is lyrical and evocative… [She] reminds us, the ethereal dreams of the 1960s shaped the all-too-solid contours of the world we inhabit today.”
- The New York Times Book Review
“Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut is a beautifully textured novel. . . Yuki’s story feels compellingly immediate, as prickly and unpredictable as its protagonist.”
- Washington Post
“Rowan Hisayo Buchanan writes with beauty and sensitivity about what it means to be an artist, a parent, and an outsider in a foreign culture.”
- New York Journal of Books
“The brilliant debut novel by Rowan Buchanan is cause for celebration.”
- Lorrie Moore
“The kind of novel our century deserves―a brilliantly conceived, beautifully written transnational novel about multiracial identity, motherhood, the struggle to be an artist, and the struggle to belong to your family. This marks the debut of an important new voice in fiction.”
- Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night
“In Harmless Like You, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan tells the parallel stories of Yuki, a Japanese teenager living on her own in 1960s’ New York, and Jay, her abandoned son who, in the 1980s, questions the family life he’s chosen. With luminous prose, unflinching honesty, and compelling narrative drive, Buchanan examines Yuki and Jay’s respective quests for companionship and safety and meaning, all the while asking, What is home? What does the face of love look like? To what extent should we honor the artistic and creative? Which is more dangerous: loneliness or intimacy? At once harrowing and reassuring, rash and generous, impetuously youthful and imbued with the wisdom that comes with perspective and distance, Harmless Like You is a stunning debut that reads like the work of a seasoned novelist.”
- Judith Mitchell
“Shuttling deftly between mother and son, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan's passionate, gorgeously-written debut novel investigates harmlessness and harm, power and vulnerability, free will and fate.”
- Ellis Avery
“This is a book I’ve been waiting for since before its author was born. And yet I could never have predicted it. It is a book about beauty and belonging, suffering and being lost, a book that takes into account history, the implications of separation and disorientation. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan cleaves to her idiosyncrasies, foregoing whitewash in favor of her own glittering vision. She is “the seer, not the seen.” The result is a gift―unassuming, elegant, vividly prismatic. Not since Sigrid Nunez’s A Feather on the Breath of God has a book shone such a moving light on multiracial, interracial, and transnational relationships. Regardless of your flesh tone, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s study of color―its history, its strangeness, its allure, and its consequences―will dazzle you.”
- Jennifer Tseng, poet and author of Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness
“What a beautiful book. So measured and confident for a debut – really impressive stuff. The fine brushwork of a meticulous student of the human condition (and I love the use of all the painting/colour descriptions – so effective) set within the rich, widescreen drama of a bold and visionary storyteller. It's like staring at a stone at the bottom of a very clear, but slowly shifting, lake. An enchanting and deftly layered exploration of desire, self-identity and belonging.”
- Jane Unsworth, author of Animals
“Moving from Manhattan to Berlin, from the Vietnam War to the new millennium, Buchanan's debut explores the thin line between attachment and abandonment, love and pain, selfishness and sacrifice. With kaleidoscopic prose and characters all too human, Harmless Like You is an unforgettable debut, as rich in darkness and light as it is in color.”
- Chloe Benjamin
About the Author
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan received a BA from Columbia University, an MFA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Margins Fellowship.
Top customer reviews
And then, assuming you're browsing Amazon wondering whether to buy this much-praised first novel, you see a picture of the author, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. In the monochrome image, she is staring at an odd angle at the camera, challenging you. It's as if she's saying "I am, despite my book's title, NOT harmless at all."
She's not. The book isn't.
It's divided into two narratives, told in alternating sections. We learn of Yuki's past, from the late sixties to the early eighties, told in the third person. We learn of the son, Jay, she's abandoned who narrates his section in the first person, taking place in 2016.
The other characters are an odd assortment. You won't see much more of the flasher, but there's Yuki's best friend Odile, who becomes a model. There's her boyfriend Al, a sportswriter who wants to be a culture writer and is abusive yet somehow caring. There's her eventual husband--the passive-aggressive Edison--who abuses her nonviolently.
Jay has a wife Mimi, and a baby girl named Eliot. Yes. A girl. And there's a cat named Celeste. All of them are well drawn and believable. And the author mixes well and stirs.
When I tell you this is a first novel you might well say, "Oh, I think I know where this is going." Ms. Buchanan knows that's what you're thinking, too, and constantly turns corners, as you'll find out. Maybe you'll read through the book, taking the turns with the author, and then when she drags you to the end you'll think, "she did it!"
I hope you do.
Notes and asides: A little sex. Thrown punches. Cat scratches. Abusive men. Mouse abuse.
In Harmless Like You, we follow the two parallel plots covering two generations of a family caught at the intersection of multiple cultures.
The first is the story of Yuki, a Japanese-American teenager who—when faced with her father's company calling the family back to Japan— decides to stay in New York City after spending most of her life there, embracing a culture that, although now more home than the country of her parents, still renders her alone. We follow her as she falls into deeper and deeper love with the arts, all while trying to find a sense of home that invasively roots itself to her life through out the borderlands of the 1960s and 70s counter culture.
The second story is that if Jay, Yuki's biracial son and an a modern day art dealer, feeling flight and unease permeate his already neurotic life as one major milestone after another, from family deaths to new parenthood, causes him to return to searching out his estranged artist mother to find out why she abandoned him and his father and chose flight in the face of motherhood.
Hopefully, if he's lucky, he might find a new home for his elderly, hairless therapy cat.
Earnest vulnerability and fragility permeate every character in Harmless, while their defense mechanisms and processing of reality render equal amounts of surreal, sarcastic, and hilarious, and sublime observation of the self, the world, and the anxieties and hopes we project into it. Shockingly real at one moment and comedically flippant the next, Buchanan's characters learn to infuriate you as only your closest friends and loved ones can, and even those you want to hate pierce your empathy. As a reader of the world she has built and the characters in it, you'll find yourself loving people who infuriate you and pitying at least one abusive narcissist even as you pray for their exit.
From the poetry to the architecture and craft of her prose, the author shapes a world where the colors of a one character's colors and paints frame story, the fashion of another echoes the shredding arc of ambition, and the dealing and collection of another reflect the quest to become whole when, even if you're not sure you ever have been.
Even small choices of writing craft, like the choices between first and third person voice, reflect their character's alternate angles and realities with in the world.
Intersecting art, internationalism, parenthood, love, intersectionality, race, and diversity, Harmless Like You will leave you a bit hollowed out in the best way, and exactly what you need to move forward and try again, regardless of how much you've messed up the lives you live and those you love around you.
And it will leave you hungry to know when you'll be able to read more of the author's worlds.
Rowan's prose deeply engages a close reader while maintaining a smart pace without creating that morass so typical in contemporary literature. It is tight and beautiful. From a technical perspective the book was just a joy to read, as there was nothing getting in the way between the page and the story.