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The Leavers (National Book Award Finalist): A Novel Hardcover – May 2, 2017
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—O, The Oprah Magazine (Favorite Books of 2017)
"[A] dazzling debut . . . Filled with exquisite, heartrending details, Ko’s exploration of the often-brutal immigrant experience in America is a moving tale of family and belonging.”
—People (Book of the Week)
“When Deming Guo was 11, his Chinese immigrant mother, Polly, left for work at a nail salon and never returned. In alternating perspectives, this heart-wrenching literary debut tells both of their stories. Grade: A”
“Ambitious . . . Lisa Ko has taken the headlines and has reminded us that beyond them lie messy, brave, extraordinary, ordinary lives.”
—New York Times Book Review
“This wrenching and all-too-topical debut novel picks up the life of an 11-year-old American-born boy on the day his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, disappears . . . Ko uses the voices of both the boy and his birth mother to tell a story that unfolds in graceful, realistic fashion and defies expectations.”
—Janet Maslin, New York Times
“Lisa Ko's The Leavers is the year's powerful debut you won't want to miss. The Leavers expertly weaves a tale of the conflicts between love and loyalty, personal identity and familial obligation, and the growing divide between freedom and social justice. An affecting novel that details the the gut-wrenching realities facing illegal immigrants and their families in modern America, Lisa Ko's debut is the 2017 fiction release you can't afford to miss.”
“An exceptionally well written, fully realized work of art portraying the circumstances and inner worlds — the motives and emotional weather — of its two central characters. Ko is so psychologically penetrating, so acute in her passing observations and deft in the quick views she affords of her characters’ inner lives and surroundings, that her skill and empathy give real joy.”
—Barnes & Noble Review
"The Leavers describes the devastation caused by forced, abrupt and secret detentions that occur daily under our current Immigration Act. The novel weaves from past to present, from immediate abandonment to chronic loss, showing how the unfathomable disappearance of a mother eats into her son's effort to "move forward.” . . . The story soars when Ko writes of immigration detention— a civil detention for violation of a civil law that is as callous and brutal as the worst sort of criminal incarceration . . . [The Leavers] lets us feel the knife twist of sweeping government authority wielded without conscience or control. [Ko’s] work gives poignant voice to the fact the U.S. can, and must, write a better immigration system.”
“Consider this book a must-read: They may be fictional, but these characters have a lot to teach us about the difficulties of belonging and the plight of illegal immigrants.”
“Poignant and timely, this novel is ripe for discussion.”
“One of 2017's most anticipated fiction debuts… The winner of last year's PEN/Bellwether Prize, which recognizes fiction that explores issues of social justice, The Leavers feels as relevant as ever as the future of immigrants in America hangs in the balance.”
“Ko’s debut is a sweeping examination of family through the eyes of a single mother, a Chinese immigrant, and her U.S.-born son, whose separation haunts and defines their lives. Ko’s stunning tale of love and loyalty – to family, to country --- is a fresh and moving look at the immigrant experience in America, and is as timely as ever.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Touching upon themes such as identity, determination, addiction, and loyalty, the author clearly shows readers that she is an emerging writer to watch. Ko’s writing is strong, and her characters, whether major or minor, are skillfully developed. Readers who enjoy thoughtfully told relationship tales by authors such as Lisa See, Jamie Ford, and Nadia Hashimi will appreciate.”
—Library Journal, starred review
“Vividly written and moving, The Leavers is an engrossing story of one young boy struggling to adjust to his new life without his mother and community.”
“…a timely touching story…excellent: compelling, well-realized, gritty and complicated.”
—Kansas City Star
“…The Leavers is a masterful debut novel that examines borders and belonging, and the universal desire for love.”
“This excellent book has already won the PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction (selected by Barbara Kingsolver). One morning, eleven-year-old Deming Gao's mother is unexpectedly deported to China. Deming is then adopted by a white family and renamed Daniel Wilkerson. But as he grows up, he struggles to reconcile his new life with his former one.”
“Ko’s debut novel has already won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize created and selected by Barbara Kingsolver. The contest awards a novel “that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships,” and Ko’s book certainly fits that laudable description.”
“An inspiring debut, which focuses on issues of assimilation and the true meaning of home. Ko’s unforgettable narrative voice is a credit to the moving stories of immigration, loss, recovery, and acceptance that feel particularly suited to our times.”
“Lisa Ko's The Leavers, which won the PEN/Bellwether Prize, may be a work of fiction, but the plot twists mirror America’s own urgent and timely political landscape.”
“…gorgeously redemptive… Lisa Ko's debut novel is an achingly beautiful read about immigration, adoption, and the drive to belong. Beyond the desensitizing media coverage, Ko gives faces, (multiple) names, and details to create a riveting story of a remarkable family coming, going, leaving … all in hopes of someday returning to one another.”
—Christian Science Monitor
“If you come away from reading The Leavers with a sense of disconnect, that’s no surprise—disconnectedness is its central theme, its structural and stylistic touchpoint, and the emotional engine driving its main characters . . . The Leavers stands firmly as Lisa Ko’s act of arrival.”
“A searing novel about a mother and son who are separated by forces beyond their control in New York, a book that promises to challenge our perceptions of immigration, adoption, family and American values.”
“This timely novel depicts the heart- and spirit-breaking difficulties faced by illegal immigrants with meticulous specificity.”
“…skillfully written…those who are interested in closely observed, character-driven fiction will want to leave room for The Leavers on their shelves.”
“What Ko seeks to do with The Leavers is illuminate the consequence of [deportation] facilities, and of the deportation machine as a whole, on individual lives. Ko’s book arrives at a time when it is most needed; its success will be measured in its ability to move its readership along the continuum between complacency and advocacy.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
“…The Leavers…using effective literary techniques and beautiful language – powerfully illustrates the impact that social policies and injustice have on the lives of individuals and families.”
An “assured debut novel…a timely story of immigrant families in America…a thoughtful work about undocumented immigrants and the threats they endure.”
"There was a time I would have called Lisa Ko’s novel beautifully written, ambitious and moving, and all of that is true, but it’s more than that now: if you want to understand a forgotten and essential part of the world we live in, The Leavers is required reading.”
"Courageous, sensitive, and perfectly of this moment: The Leavers is everything I could hope for in a winner of the Bellwether Prize."
“In The Leavers, Lisa Ko has created one of the most courageous mother character's in recent memory. Polly is brash, brave and heartbreaking and her ferocity is marvelous to behold. The Leavers is about the bonds between parents and children and the many pulls of home. It was a book I did not want to end.”
—Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman
"A rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages. . . one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year."
—Laila Lalami, author of The Moor’s Account
"A moving mother/son story and welcome contribution to immigrant literature. In writing about Polly and her son Deming, Ko captures one family's unique experience of becoming American while also exposing the loss of status, economic desperation, physical endangerment, and psychological grit of the undocumented worker as well as the alienation, double consciousness, mobility, and comparative access of the first generation."
—Emily Raboteau, author of Searching for Zion
“The story’s most heartbreaking disclosures are powerful in their indictment of the unrealistic expectations placed upon struggling families.”
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The book opens with Deming Guo and his mother Polly. They are living in a tiny apartment in NYC with relatives and life is a struggle, but all seems well. Polly goes off to work one day and does not return. Deming is brought to child services where he is adopted by a NY suburban couple and is given the name Daniel.
Daniel isn't the perfect child, he struggles in school, he kind of coasts through life, and winds up with a gambling addiction and isolates himself from his friends.
Daniel is haunted by his memories of his previous life. He knows he is not Daniel, but Deming and he knows his mother is out there somewhere, so he begins his search for her and what happened that day.
The narrative shifts to Polly's story. It is a story of coming into NY as an undocumented pregnant woman who is dropped off alone in the world. She has always been independent, but now she is in NY and must work low wage jobs to make ends meet. She has to make tough choices in her life to protect her son. Her life is a life of struggle and frustration as she knows this isn't the life she wants. Her narrative takes us back to the day she left Deming behind because she was arrested and deported in an immigration raid (not a spoiler).
A lot more happens, but I would start walking into spoiler territory, so I am going to end there.
I have to write, I loved the parallel lives. Both Daniel and Polly are in places and situations they don't want to be in. They are missing their identities and travel the world kind of lost. Both have major struggles, but they are incredibly different struggles. It was a great piece on identity and not being content with oneself.
The writing in the book drew me in and I just flew through this book. The story doesn't ever really slow at all and at times I didn't want to put it down. It isn't that a lot happens, but you do care about Daniel and Polly. The emotional pull of almost resenting Polly for what she did and the pull back to loving her because she had no other choice, but to give up Deming was a roller coaster.
I cannot recommend this one enough. This is a pure drama, so don't expect comedy breaks or a beach read. This is just a great book that needs time to marinade with.
I gave this one 5 stars.
I know it's hard, if not impossible, to really understand the agony of displacement if one has not experienced for oneself. My own difficulties pale in comparison. Maybe that's part of what makes the story so powerful for me. I don't have it so bad and these characters inspire me with their resilience. But there's more to it than that. The story is compelling, the characters flawed and lovable. The writing is exquisite, both fast-paced and dreadfully slow where it fits, lots of wonderfully quirky bits of detail that make the places and people very alive, funky or straight-laced, all trying to be or trying to get someone else to be what they need or think they need.
This is one of those few books I will tell lots of people about and will re-read, probably more than once. Thank you so much.