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The Year She Left Us: A Novel by Kathryn Ma

The Year She Left Us: A Novel

by Kathryn Ma

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Originally posted at http://olduvaireads.wordpress.com/2014/06/11/tlc-book-tours-the-year-she-left-us...

The Year She Left Us is the story of the Kong women of the San Francisco Bay Area. Four women, each with their own story to tell, with their own secrets to conceal.

We begin with the adoption of Ari from an orphanage in China. Charlie is her adoptive mother, and tries her best to raise her, as a single mother. But as Ari grows up and becomes an angry, sullen teenager, Charlie wrings her hands in despair and pretty much loses any confidence in being a mother. Les is Charlie’s sister, far more strong-willed and aggressive, more willing to make decisions and act on things than her sister.

Gran is the prickly pear of the family, the stern, standing-tall-never-slouching kind of older woman, proud of her family’s privileged background – her father was a doctor in Shanghai and treated the rich and important; she points out to Ari that they are “not Chinatown Chinese” and speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese. She’s got a secret of her own, something about her past in China that even her children don’t know about.

Then there is Ari, a bit of an enigma despite the first-person narrative on her part. She wants to know what happened to her, why she was abandoned at a store in China. And it all torments her so much that she does something rather shocking when she’s in China (she’s working with a family friend who organises tours of the orphanages), a physical kind of damage behind which lies all kinds of emotional hurt. No one besides her good friend AJ (a fellow adoptee – they call themselves the Whackadoodles, from Western-Adopted Chinese Daughters or WACD) knows the truth and it’s hurting everyone, especially Ari herself.

It’s a rather unusual adoption story. The adoptive mother is Chinese-American, whereas most adoptive families of Chinese girls tend to be white (Ari is the only Whackadoodle to be adopted by a Chinese family). And it’s a family which is very solidly female, matriarchal. Both Les and Charlie are single, although there are hints of relationships past and present, and their father died some years ago. Les talks about the three Kong women being like the Three Fates. Clotho, spinning the thread of life, is Charlie. Lachesis (Gran) measures the thread, deciding how long a life should be led. Atropos wields the power to cut the thread, and Les is the one who makes the big decisions in the family: “Charlie was too tender and Gran too abrupt”.

And Ari? Ari is the one character I struggled to like. Her youth, her brashness and thoughtlessness. There was some vulnerability, her feeling of abandonment, her struggle to find her own identity. But she felt so very closed off, a big ‘keep out’ sign over her head, I couldn’t feel for her like I wanted to.

One thing that tickled me was the fact that the Kong sisters were very American. They barely spoke Mandarin and lived far from Chinatown, but since they were ethnically Chinese everyone assumed they did – Les, for instance, was often asked to escort delegations from China around on the assumption that they had a common language.

“Les would ok sooner call Reynold Low and Reverend Stanley her ‘community’ than walk through the streets of Chinatown on Autumn Moon Festival Day.”

The Year She Left Us was a moving story, filled with some wonderfully strong women. It offers an interesting insight into international adoption and how it can affect not just the child in question but her family. A fresh and rather spunky story.

( )
  RealLifeReading | Jan 19, 2016 |
Three generations of women circle one another in Kathryn Ma’s debut novel, The Year She Left Us. After decades of living in the United States, Gran, the Kong family matriarch never approved of her daughter Charlie adopting from China, claiming Ari would come from uneducated stock. At eighteen, while visiting her home orphanage in China, years of perfectionism and questioning send Ari down a path of self-discovery that will separate her from her family, but eventually bring her closer to their family secrets.

The women in The Year She Left Us are all such vibrant, strong characters, yet they all have flaws that make them feel perfectly realistic. While the alternating viewpoints work well in showing the vast differences in the women’s personalities, it causes the reading experience to lose fluidity, particularly as physical distance grows between the women. This device has worked across continents and time periods in other novels, but feels a bit clunky here.

The main attraction of the book is the delicate connections between generations, even those not dictated by birth. For those interested in exploring the way family secrets can bind us, The Year She Left Us is a must read.

Read more at rivercityreading.com ( )
  rivercityreading | Aug 10, 2015 |
A novel that explores the promise and pains associated with a chinese adoption. I couldn't connect to this story (or the characters) where the best of intentions leads to so much unhappiness. I struggled through it hoping for a happy ending, but didn't get it. ( )
  myra.reads | Dec 25, 2014 |
“The Year She Left Us’ is both coming of age novel and family drama. The main character is Ari, who narrates much of the novel. She was a Chinese orphan, left as an infant in a department store, adopted by a single woman, a hard working public defender. She is considered not only lucky because she got adopted by an American, but extra lucky because her mother is Chinese-American. No one need know she’s adopted, unlike the many Chinese girls (the children adopted out to America are most often girls, because of China’s ‘one child’ law; abandoning the girl baby allows them to try again for the coveted son) who are adopted by white people. Unlike other Chinese adoptees in the group of young girls (“Western Adopted Chinese Daughters”, aka the Whackadoodles) her mother takes her to for learning about her Chinese heritage, she doesn’t feel lucky. She focuses on the fact that she was abandoned, that she wasn’t good enough to love. She never feels like she fits in, not even with the other adoptees. While on a trip to China – which includes a tour of the orphanages- with the adoptee group, she is approached by a man who claims he is her father, an event that pushes her over the edge and she cuts her finger off.

Things don’t get any better when Ari returns home. Digging around the house one day, she discovers old pictures, ones from about the time when she was adopted, showing a man, along with herself as a baby held against his chest. On the back are the words “Aaron practicing to be a father”. She decides that she must find this Aaron; perhaps this will tell her who she is. She ends up in Alaska for months on this quest, and that isn’t the end of her wandering as she tries to find herself.

Interspersed with Ari’s narrative are third person chapters about her mother Charlie, her aunt Les, and Gran. Men are absent from the lives of these three women, and the women seem to survive just fine- on the surface. Charlie is driven by sympathy for her poor clients; Les is a judge and driven by ambition; Gran feels the past should be thrown away. None of them understand Ari’s need to belong somewhere. Neither, for that matter, does Ari.

The characters are vivid- especially Ari and Gran. Charlie and Les have less depth; they are politically correct and career driven; they are the stereotype of Asian Americans. Gran is a much more colorful person; Ari does just about everything a bad girl can do. I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for Les and Charlie; they are pretty flat. I loved Gran and wished she had more of a part, and while I didn’t much like Ari I did sympathize with her and her search for answers that can never be found. It’s hard enough to be a teenager without wondering why your parents abandoned you. Why does Ari fixate on this while the other Whackadoodles don’t? We never really find out; people are just different. This book has surprising depth and maturity for a first novel; Ma is definitely a strong new voice in Asian American literature. ( )
  lauriebrown54 | Sep 23, 2014 |
I have several friends who have adopted their daughters from China. In fact adoptions from China to the US comprise the largest portion of international adoptions hands down, not surprising when you look at the combination of China's one child policy and their general willingness to allow foreign adoptions. And although I imagined that it could be difficult for adoptive parents to keep their daughters connected to their cultural heritage, I never imagined a huge sense of disconnect for the children as portrayed here in Kathryn Ma's debut novel, The Year She Left Us.

Ari Kong is 18 and she has just suffered a breakdown after spending time working for a friend's mother giving "heritage tours" to American families with daughters adopted from China. Ari herself was adopted as a baby by Charlie, a first generation Chinese-American woman, and had been on one of these tours herself to see the land of her birth and the orphanage where she lived so theoretically she would have been the perfect choice to lead these tours for others. But ever since her own initial visit back to China, Ari has been consumed with the thought that she was disposable, thrown away by her birth parents, unwanted.

The Kong family is one of all women. Gran, who fled China to escape Mao's rule, is twice widowed and even though her daughters are adults, she still holds sway over them. She's independent and opinionated and she was adamantly opposed to Charlie's plan to adopt as a single mother, fearing that the child would be of inferior stock to her own family. Charlie is a kind and gentle person, a public defender who finds herself getting personally wrapped up in the fate of her clients and is completely at a loss as to how to handle her suddenly prickly and combative daughter. Charlie's older sister Les is a judge who yearns to be appointed to the federal circuit. Like Charlie, she is also unmarried but where Charlie is softer and more of a pushover, Les is harder, a stickler and always conscious of her position as a role model. As different as these women are, each of them harbors a secret, one that burrows into her very core and helps to define who she is as a woman. And this is the family to which Ari belongs.

But Ari is broken and searching, without regard to the family standing behind her. She is unlike the other Whackadoodles (the nickname given to her playgroup full of adopted Chinese daughters) in that she isn't the Asian child of white parents, her family being ethnically Chinese, and she wasn't adopted by a couple but instead by a single woman so she still feels different and an outsider in a whole different way than the other girls. Ari's abandonment issues drive her away from her mother, aunt, and grandmother and into a mysterious past that nearly breaks her. She is a wanderer and seeker who cannot find the answer to her questions. She is lost without knowing why. She shuts her family out as she tries to make sense of who she is both personally and culturally. And as Ari questions her existence, even traveling to Alaska for answers about a never before acknowledged father figure, Charlie and Les too search for the meaning in their lives and who they really are.

The story is told in narrating chapters with Ari and Gran telling their own stories in first person and Charlie and Les' perspectives being narrated in third person. The different narrations allow the reader to look at events from multiple perspectives. Ari, around whom the entire story centers as the dominant character, is angry and lost and selfish. She is unpleasant and it is hard to want to read more about her created angst. Certainly growing up and hearing constantly how lucky she was to be adopted must have been hard but she shows no empathy for others in her life, no consideration for the love and kindnesses she is shown by both family and strangers. She is so wrapped up in her own bitterness and sense of injustice over her beginnings that she cannot see that her actions affect or hurt others. And she overwhelms the other characters so that their stories feel very tangential to the main plot. There is a distance to the narrative, a keep out sign, despite the changing narration that makes it hard to get into the story and keeps the reader from becoming too involved with any of the characters. The haunted darkness, guilt, and insecurity make this a depressing tale but even so it offers interesting insights into the international adoption process, the psychology behind it, the social issues that it can bring to the fore, and the way it can reverberate throughout so many lives. ( )
  whitreidtan | Jun 3, 2014 |
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For my mother
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0062273345, Hardcover)

From the winner of the 2009 Iowa Short Fiction Prize—comes the extraordinary, unexpected debut tale of three generations of Chinese-American women in a San Francisco family who must confront their past and carve out a future.

The Kong women are in crisis. A disastrous trip to visit her "home" orphanage in China has plunged eighteen-year-old Ari into a self-destructive spiral. Her adoptive mother, Charlie, a lawyer with a great heart, is desperate to keep her daughter safe. Meanwhile, Charlie must endure the prickly scrutiny of her beautiful, Bryn Mawr educated mother, Gran—who, as the daughter of a cultured Chinese doctor, came to America to survive Mao's Revolution—and her sister, Les, a brilliant judge with a penchant to rule over everyone's lives.

As they cope with Ari's journey of discovery and its aftermath, the Kong women will come face to face with the truths of their lives—four powerful intertwining stories of accomplishment, tenacity, secrets, loneliness, and love. Beautifully illuminating the bonds of family and blood, The Year She Left Us explores the promise and pain of adoption, the price of assimilation and achievement, the debt we owe to others, and what we owe ourselves.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:29 -0400)

After a disastrous visit to her "home" orphanage in China, eighteen-year-old Ari Kong descends into a self-destructive spiral that forces all of the Kong women to come face to face with the truths of their lives.

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