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The Leavers (National Book Award Finalist): A Novel

The Leavers (National Book Award Finalist): A Novel

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The Leavers (National Book Award Finalist): A Novel

4/5 (124 ratings)
451 pages
7 hours
May 2, 2017

Editor's Note

New classic…

Lisa Ko’s debut is a sweeping and beautifully written depiction of hot button issues, including family separation and illegal immigration, told through the story of one mother and son.



Named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed, Bustle, and Electric Literature

“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.” —Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth

Lisa Ko’s powerful debut, The Leavers, is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.
One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon—and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her. 
With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind. 
Told from the perspective of both Daniel—as he grows into a directionless young man—and Polly, Ko’s novel gives us one of fiction’s most singular mothers. Loving and selfish, determined and frightened, Polly is forced to make one heartwrenching choice after another. 
Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past. 
May 2, 2017

About the author

Lisa Ko’s fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, Apogee Journal, Narrative, Copper Nickel, the Asian Pacific American Journal, and elsewhere. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, and Blue Mountain Center, among others. She was born in New York City, where she now lives.

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The Leavers (National Book Award Finalist) - Lisa Ko

The Leavers

A Novel

Lisa Ko


Sin Yao Tai

Like the sea, I am recommended by my orphaning.

Noisy with telegrams not received,

quarrelsome with aliases,

intricate with misguided journeys,

by my expulsions have I come to love you.

–LI-YOUNG LEE, The City in Which I Loved You




























Reader’s Guide

About the Author

About Algonquin


Another Boy, Another Planet


The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue hat sat low on her forehead, scarf around her neck like a big brown snake. What are you waiting for, Kid? It’s cold out.

He stood in the doorway of P.S. 33 as she zipped his coat so hard the collar pinched. Did you get off work early? It was four thirty, already dark, but she didn’t usually leave the nail salon until six.

They spoke, as always, in Fuzhounese. Short shift. Michael said you had to stay late to get help on an assignment. Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses, and he couldn’t tell if she bought it or not. Teachers didn’t call your mom when you got detention, only gave a form you had to return with a signature, which he forged. Michael, who never got detention, had left after eighth period, and Deming wanted to get back home with him, in front of the television, where, in the safety of a laugh track, he didn’t have to worry about letting anyone down.

Snow fell like clots of wet laundry. Deming and his mother walked up Jerome Avenue. In the back of a concrete courtyard three older boys were passing a blunt, coats unzipped, wearing neither backpacks nor hats, sweet smoke and slow laughter warming the thin February air. I don’t want you to be like that, she said. I don’t want you to be like me. I didn’t even finish eighth grade.

What a sweet idea, not finishing eighth grade. He could barely finish fifth. His teachers said it was an issue of focus, of not applying himself. Yet when he tripped Travis Bhopa in math class Deming had been as shocked as Travis was. I’ll come to your school tomorrow, his mother said, talk to your teacher about that assignment. He kept his arm against his mother’s, loved the scratchy sound of their jackets rubbing together. She wasn’t one of those TV moms, always hugging their kids or watching them with bemused smiles, but insisted on holding his hand when they crossed a busy street. Inside her gloves her hands were red and scraped, the skin angry and peeling, and every night before she went to sleep she rubbed a thick lotion onto her fingers and winced. Once he asked if it made them hurt less. She said only for a little while, and he wished there was a special lotion that could make new skin grow, a pair of superpower gloves.

Short and blocky, she wore loose jeans—never had he seen her in a dress—and her voice was so loud that when she called his name dogs would bark and other kids jerked around. When she saw his last report card he thought her shouting would set off the car alarms four stories below. But her laughter was as loud as her shouting, and there was no better, more gratifying sound than when she slapped her knees and cackled at something silly. She laughed at things that weren’t meant to be funny, like TV dramas and the swollen orchestral soundtracks that accompanied them, or, better yet, at things Deming said, like when he nailed the way their neighbor Tommie always went, Not bad-not bad-not bad when they passed him in the stairwell, an automatic response to a Hello-how-are-you that hadn’t yet been issued. Or the time she’d asked, flipping through TV stations, "Dancing with the Stars isn’t on?" and he had excavated Michael’s old paper mobile of the solar system and waltzed with it through the living room as she clapped. It was almost as good as getting cheered on by his friends.

When he had lived in Minjiang with his grandfather, Deming’s mother had explored New York by herself. There was a restlessness to her, an inability to be still or settled. She jiggled her legs, bounced her knees, cracked her knuckles, twirled her thumbs. She hated being cooped up in the apartment on a sunny day, paced the rooms from wall to wall to wall, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Who wants to go for a walk? she would say. Her boyfriend Leon would tell her to relax, sit down. Sit down? We’ve been sitting all day! Deming would want to stay on the couch with Michael, but he couldn’t say no to her and they’d go out, no family but each other. He would have her to himself, an ambling walk in the park or along the river, making up stories about who lived in the apartments they saw from the outside—a family named Smith, five kids, father dead, mother addicted to bagels, he speculated the day they went to the Upper East Side. To bagels? she said. What flavor bagel? Everything bagels, he said, which made her giggle harder, until they were both bent over on Madison Avenue, laughing so hard no sounds were coming out, and his stomach hurt but he couldn’t stop laughing, old white people giving them stink eye for stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Deming and his mother loved everything bagels, the sheer balls of it, the New York audacity that a bagel could proclaim to be everything, even if it was only topped with sesame seeds and poppy seeds and salt.

A bus lumbered past, spraying slush. The walk sign flashed on. You know what I did today? his mother said. One lady, she had a callus the size of your nose on her heel. I had to scrape all that dead skin off. It took forever. And her tip was shit. You’ll never do that, if you’re careful.

He dreaded this familiar refrain. His mother could curse, but the one time he’d let motherfucker bounce out in front of her, loving the way the syllables got meatbally in his mouth, she had slapped his arm and said he was better than that. Now he silently said the word to himself as he walked, one syllable per footstep.

Did you think that when I was growing up, a small girl your age, I thought: hey, one day, I’m going to come all the way to New York so I can pick gao gao out of a stranger’s toe? That was not my plan.

Always be prepared, she liked to say. Never rely on anyone else to give you things you could get yourself. She despised laziness, softness, people who were weak. She had few friends, but was true to the ones she had. She could hold a fierce grudge, would walk an extra three blocks to another grocery store because, two years ago, a cashier at the one around the corner had smirked at her lousy English. It was lousy, Deming agreed.

Take Leon, for instance. He look okay to you?

Leon’s always okay.

His back’s screwed up. His shoulders are busted. Men don’t work in nail salons. You don’t finish school, you end up cutting meat like Leon, arthritis by the time you’re thirty-five.

It seemed disloyal to talk like this about Yi Ba Leon, who was so strong he’d do one-arm push-ups for Deming and Michael and their friends, let them punch him in the gut for kicks, though Deming stopped short of punching as hard as he could. Do it again, Leon would say. You call that a punch? That’s a handshake. Even if Leon wasn’t his real father—on this topic, his mother was so tightlipped that all he knew about the man was that he’d never been around—he made Deming proud. If he could grow up to be like any man, he wanted to be like Leon, or the guy who played the saxophone in the subway station, surrounded by people as his fingers danced and his chest heaved and the tunnel filled with flashes of purples and oranges. Oh, to be loved like that!

Fordham Road was unusually quiet in the snow. Ice covered the sidewalk in front of an abandoned building, a reddish piece of gum clinging to it like a lonely pepperoni atop a frozen pizza. This winter is never-ending, Deming’s mother said, and they gripped each other’s arms for balance as they made their way across the sidewalk. Don’t you want to get out of here, go somewhere warm?

It’s warm at home. In their apartment, if they could just get there, the heat was blasting. Some days they even wore T-shirts inside.

His mother scowled. I was the first girl in my village to go to the provincial capital. I made it all the way to New York. I was supposed to travel the world.

But then.

But then I had you. Then I met Leon. You’re my home now. They started up the hill on University Avenue. We’re moving.

He stopped in a slush puddle. What? Where?

Florida. I got a new job at a restaurant. It’s near this Disney World. I’ll take you there. She grinned at him like she was expecting a grin back.

Is Yi Ba Leon coming?

She pulled him away from the puddle. Of course.

What about Michael and Vivian?

They’ll join us later.


The job starts soon. In a week or two.

A week? I have school.

Since when do you love school so much?

But I have friends. Travis Bhopa had been calling Michael and Deming cockroaches for months, and the impulse to stick a foot out as he lumbered down the aisle was brilliant, spontaneous, the look on Travis’s face one of disbelief, the sound of Travis’s body going down an oozy plop. Michael and their friends had high-fived him. Badass, Deming! Detention had been worth it.

They stood in front of the bodega. You’re going to go to a good school. The new job is going to pay good money. We’ll live in a quiet town.

Her voice was a trumpet, her words sharp triangles. Deming remembered the years without her, the silent house on 3 Alley with Yi Gong, and saw a street so quiet he could only hear himself blink. I’m not going.

I’m your mother. You have to go with me.

The bodega door slammed shut. Mrs. Johnson, who lived in their building, walked out with two plastic bags.

You weren’t with me when I was in China, he said.

Yi Gong was with you then. I was working so I could save money to have you here. It’s different now.

He removed his hand from hers. Different how?

You’ll love Florida. You’ll have a big house and your own room.

I don’t want my own room. I want Michael there.

You’ve moved before. It wasn’t so hard, was it?

The light had changed, but Mrs. Johnson remained on their side of the street, watching them. University Avenue wasn’t Chinatown, where they had lived before moving in with Leon in the Bronx. There were no other Fuzhounese families on their block, and sometimes people looked at them like their language had come out of the drain.

Deming answered in English. I’m not going. Leave me alone.

She raised her hand. He jolted back as she lunged forward. Then she hugged him, the snowy front of her jacket brushing against his cheek, his nose pressing into her chest. He could hear her heartbeat through the layers of clothing, thumping and determined, and before he could relax he forced himself to wriggle out of her arms and race up the block, backpack bumping against his spine. She clomped after him in her plastic boots, hooting as she slid across the sidewalk.

THEY LIVED IN A small apartment in a big building, and Deming’s mother wanted a house with more rooms. Wanted quiet. But Deming didn’t mind the noise, liked hearing their neighbors argue in English and Spanish and other languages he didn’t know, liked the thuds of feet and the scraping back of chairs, salsa and merengue and hip-hop, football games and Wheel of Fortune spilling from the bottoms of doors and through ceiling cracks, radiator pipes clanging along to running toilets. He heard other mothers yelling at other kids. This building contained an entire town.

There was no mention of Florida over dinner. Deming and Michael watched George Lopez, followed by Veronica Mars, as Deming’s mother folded last week’s laundry. Leon was at the slaughterhouse, nightshift. Leon’s sister Vivian, Michael’s mother, was still at work. Deming lay against one side of the couch, legs stretched out to the middle, Michael on the other side, a mirror image, still recalling Travis Bhopa. He went down hard! Michael’s heels pounded the cushions. He had it coming to him! What if the rooms were so big in Florida they could no longer hear one another?

His mother was rubbing lotion into her hands. You’re my home now, she said. Earlier, he had volunteered to get her cigarettes at the bodega and shoplifted a Milky Way, then gave half to Michael when she wasn’t looking. Badass, Deming. Michael chomped his half in one bite and looked at Deming with such admiration that Deming knew it would be fine. As long as Michael came with them, as long as he wasn’t alone, they could move. His mother wouldn’t find out about detention, and he and Michael could make new friends. He pictured beaches, sand, ocean. Wearing shorts at Christmas.

Late at night, early in the morning, Deming woke to a smack on the mattress across the bedroom, Leon and his mother whispering as Michael snored on his back. Go fuck yourself, his mother said. The snow shovel trucks rolled down the street, scraping the pavement clean.

Despite his efforts he fell back asleep, and when the alarm rang for school Leon was still sleeping, Michael in the shower, his mother in the kitchen in her work clothes, black pants and black shirt, half-smoked cigarette on the edge of an empty jar. The ash grew soft and long, collapsed.

When are we moving?

The radiator pinged black dots. His mother’s hair fuzzed up in a static halo, her glasses smudged and greasy. We’re not, she said. Now hurry or you’ll be late for school.

THE DAY SUSTAINED ITS afterglow following the scrapping of Florida—no more beaches, though—even when Travis Bhopa said I’ll kill you in a vampiric accent outside the cafeteria, although he’d said weirder things to other kids, like I’ll burn down your building and eat your ears. Travis lacked allies; he had no backup. After school Deming and Michael walked home together, unlocked the apartment with the keys their mothers had given them, exhumed a block of rice from the refrigerator and a package of cold-cuts, moist pink circles of ham. They were adept at making meals even their friends found disgusting. Later, these meals would be the ones Deming missed the most: fried rice and salami showered with garlic powder from a big plastic bottle, instant noodles steeped in ketchup topped with American cheese and Tabasco.

They ate on the couch, which took up most of the living room, a slippery beast printed with orange and red flowers that made zippy noises when you attempted to sit and instead slid. It was also Vivian’s bed. His mother hated it, but Deming saw worlds in its patterns, stared at the colors until he got cross-eyed and the flowers took on different shapes, fish tank, candies, tree tops in late October, and he envisioned himself underwater, swimming against the surface of the fabric. When I manage my own salon, the first thing I’m going to do is get rid of that thing, his mother would say. You come home one day, it’ll be gone.

Four to eight was the TV dead zone, talk shows and local news. There was a Geometry test tomorrow that Michael didn’t need to study for and Deming wasn’t going to study for unless his mother found out about it. He got sleepy thinking about the worksheet they had done in class today, on which he’d scribbled made-up answers next to triangles and other assorted shapes. What is the measure of angle C? Fifty hotdogs. When it was seven and his mother wasn’t home, he figured she was working late, that he had been granted a Geometry reprieve.

Vivian came home before Jeopardy ended, trailed by the scent of ammonia. She sewed at the kitchen table, piecemeal orders from a factory, but lately she had also been cleaning apartments in Riverdale.

Polly’s not here? No one’s made dinner?

We had ham, Michael said.

That’s not dinner. Deming, your mother was supposed to get food on the way home.

She’s at work, Deming said.

Vivian opened the refrigerator and shut it. Fine. I’m taking a shower.

When Leon returned it was eight o’clock. Your mother’s supposed to be home already. Guess that new boss made her stay late. He bought frozen pizzas for dinner, and the sausage balls resembled boils but were oily and delicious. Deming ate three slices. Mama never got bodega pizza.

Leon’s cell phone rang. He took the call in the hallway, and Deming put away the dishes and waited for him to return. Was that Mama? Can I talk to her?

It was her friend Didi. Leon squeezed his phone in his hand like he was wringing a wet towel.

Where’s Mama? Are we going to Florida?

Away for a few days. Visiting friends.

What friends?

You don’t know them.

Where do they live?

It’s late. You should get to sleep.

Michael was sitting on their bed. Where’s your mom? With his glasses off he looked older and thinner, his stare wide, unfocused.

Leon says she’s away for a few days. As Deming got under the blankets he couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.

A WEEK PASSED AND he went to school once. When his mother and Leon had gone to Atlantic City for a night, she had called and reminded him to go to sleep on time, but now he stayed up late, ate M&M’s for breakfast, played hooky with his friend Hung, whose father had died the month before. They watched DVDs in Hung’s apartment on Valentine Avenue for so long they fell asleep and woke up and fell asleep again, cranking the volume until the car chases and gunfire soothed the cold horror skittering inside him. Where was Mama? She had no friends to visit. There was nobody to lie to for the following day’s detention, to hound him about having a plan. Vivian never checked homework; Michael always did his.

Saturday, again. The tube of hand lotion was inside the bathroom cabinet next to her toothbrush. Tucked into the bristles was a green speck, vegetable matter she had brushed from a molar. Deming uncapped the lotion, pushed out a glob. A familiar fragrance, antiseptic and floral, socked him in the sinuses, and he rinsed his hands with soap and hot water until the smell faded. He found one of her socks at the foot of the bed and its partner across the room, lodged against the dresser, and bundled them into the ball shape she preferred. He sat in a corner of the bedroom with a box of her things. Blue jeans; a plastic cat for decorating a cell phone antenna, still sealed in its packaging; a yellow sweater she never wore, tiny hard balls of yarn dotting its sleeves. There was a blue button, solid and round, which he stuck in his pocket.

Her sneakers, her toothbrush, the purple mug with the chipped rim that she drank tea from: still in the apartment, though not her keys, not her wallet or handbag. Deming opened the closet. Her coat and winter hat and boots were gone—she had worn them to work that Thursday—but the rest of her clothes still there. He shut the door. She hadn’t packed. Maybe she’d been the victim of a crime, like on CSI, and maybe she was dead.

Michael drank water from the purple mug and Deming wanted to smack it out of his hands. He didn’t want her to be dead, never ever, but it seemed preferable, in a fucked-up way, to having her leave without a good-bye. The last words he said to her had been, When are we moving? If he hadn’t gotten detention—if he had left school at the usual time—if he hadn’t resisted Florida—if he’d intercepted the fight she had with Leon—she would still be here. Like a detective inspecting the same five seconds of surveillance video, he replayed last Wednesday afternoon, walking the blocks from school to home. Again and again Deming and Mama crossed Fordham Road, waited at the light, slipped on the ice, hugged, Mrs. Johnson forever watching. He zoomed in on the frames, slow-motioned their walk up University, then reversed it so they goose-stepped downhill, cars and buses groaning backwards. He picked apart the words she said, hunting for clues, the way his English teachers made them read poems and spend twenty minutes talking about a sentence, the meaning behind the meaning. The meaning behind her telling him about her life. The meaning of Florida. The meaning of her not coming home.

He heard a key in the door and hoped it was her, going, "What, you thought I left you? Who do you take me for, Kid, Homecoming?" They had watched the TV movie where a mom left her kids at the mall and never came back, and he’d been more entranced by the mall, its sprawling, suburban emptiness. If she came home, he wouldn’t play with his food or speak English so fast she couldn’t keep up. He would do his homework, wash the dishes, let her kick his ass at Whac-A-Mole like she’d done at the church carnival in Belmont last summer, where Michael had barfed up cotton candy after riding the Octopus.

But it wasn’t his mother in the door, only Vivian, shaking slush from her shoes. He ran to her and shouted, You need to find her, she’s in danger.

Vivian put an arm around him, her face round and wide like Leon’s. She’s not in danger. She was warm and familiar but not the right mother, and instead of nail polish and hand lotion she smelled of sweat and lemon disinfectant.

Is she in Florida?

Vivian bit her lip. We don’t know for sure. We’re trying to find out. I’m sure she’s okay.

SNOW MELTED. PINK BUDS appeared on the trees. One night Leon and Vivian spoke in the kitchen but when Deming walked in, they stopped and looked at each other. That week, Deming and Michael packed away their winter coats and took out their T-shirts. Deming saw his mother’s spring jacket in the closet, the one she called her Christmas coat because the green was the color of pine needles, and turned away fast. He apologized to Travis Bhopa in hope that it would set things right, that by sacrificing his pride it would guarantee her safety. Are you crazy? Hung said, and Michael looked like Deming had tripped him instead. Travis grunted, Whatever. She stayed gone. The worse he felt, the more it would make her return. He decided to not eat for a day, which wasn’t hard as Vivian and Leon were always out and dinner was a bag of potato chips, a cup of instant ramen. Bodega pizza four times a week. Now she would have to come home. He fell asleep in school, lightheaded from skipping breakfast. She would take him out for enchiladas but be glad he lost weight because she wouldn’t have to buy him new clothes. She stayed gone. If he cracked an A in Geometry, she would come back. He pulled a B-minus on a quiz and doubled down for the next one—B-plus. She stayed gone. Vivian was right. She’d left for Florida and left him, too.


A decade later, Daniel Wilkinson stood in a corner, hoping no one would notice his shoes. They were insulated hiking boots, clunkers with forest green accents, necessary armor for upstate winters but aesthetic insult in the city. With his Gore-Tex coat, wool hat, and puffy gloves stashed in a back room with his guitar—a butterscotch Strat he’d bought off of Craigslist—his jeans and black T-shirt didn’t seem too blatantly suburban, yet the other guys’ feet were clad in stark white sneakers or dark leather boots, and the old fear bucked up that he’d be exposed, called out, exiled. You’re a fake. What’s your real name? Where are you really from?

He dug his hands in his pockets and rubbed the fabric between his thumbs and index fingers. How did you sew the inside of a pocket, anyway? He saw a roomful of sewing machines, women guiding denim beneath darting needles, and thought of his mother.

The show was in a loft apartment on the last remaining industrial block in Lower Manhattan. Windows lined one wall, edged with late February frost, and the concrete floor was tacky with spilled drinks. Closer to where the bands played, it was as hot as July. The current act, math rockers whose set sounded like one thirty-minute-long song, dull grays and feeble angles, the singer’s head shaved bald around the sides while the hair on top sprouted up like a fistful of licorice, reminded Daniel of being stoned for days in his dorm room at SUNY Potsdam, hitting repeat on the same song until the notes separated and unraveled.

Thank God he was no longer at Potsdam. He drank vodka in his plastic cup, let the warmth spread into his belly, sandpapering his nerves until the music soaked down to his toes. When he and Roland played, the audience would be incredulous, admiring. Not like earlier, when this dude Nate had been talking about Vic Sirro and Daniel had blurted, Oh, you mean the blue backpack guy? and Nate had made a face like he’d noticed a stain on his pants.

Oh, you mean the blue backpack guy. Daniel mentally punched himself. Nate was so tall and skinny he had a premature hunchback, and his long, thin face was giraffe-adjacent, but even he thought Daniel was a loser. After tonight, no one would turn away from him in the middle of a conversation or look over him as if he was invisible. The band would play sold-out shows, be profiled on music blogs, his picture front and center. Roland had been telling people that this new project was his best yet, reunited with his original collaborator, with Daniel’s insane guitar. Hearing this made Daniel nervous, like they were tempting fate. All week he’d been waiting for someone to tell Roland to shut up and stop bragging. But half the room was here because they wanted to cheer Roland on, and Daniel was trying hard to absorb the excitement.

He poured himself another vodka, downed it, poured another. He wandered out to the rooftop, the city spread wide like an offering, though he knew better than to admit he was impressed by the view. Upstate, snow was everywhere, the season in deep coma. Yet in the city there was minimal snow, heat lamps on the roof and bridges in the distance lit up like X-rays, and there was music, wordless and thumping, bulbs of gold and green, and dancing, arms and legs moving in slow motion, like animals stalking their prey. There were girls with geometric tattoos up the insides of their forearms, hair bundled up like snakes, eyeliner packed on so thick it looked like it had been applied with a Sharpie. One of them had played a set earlier, creeping yowls and crashing keyboards, violin, theremin, melodica, each instrument creepier than the next. Daniel glanced at his hiking boots and moved toward the eye of the dancing, the music an underwater dream.

Years before these transplants dared to venture out of their suburban hometowns, Daniel had been a city kid who memorized the subway system by fourth grade. Yet he still felt like he didn’t belong. Post-Ridgeborough, it had never been easy for Daniel to trust himself. Not like Roland, who could give a party direction simply by showing up. When Roland asked if anyone wanted to eat at Taco Bell, which would elicit silence or even derision if anyone else suggested it, people said sure, cool. If Roland proclaimed a show boring, people agreed to bounce. Daniel was malleable, everyone and no one, a collector of moods, a careful observer of the right thing to say. He watched other people’s reactions before deciding on his own; he could be fun or serious or whatever was most strategic, whoever you wanted him to be. Sometimes it backfired, like when he’d overheard these guys talking about a band named Crudites and said, Yeah, I’ve heard of them, nineties pop punk, right? and one of them had said, It’s not a real band. It’s a joke. How quickly he’d stammered that he must have misheard. Or the other night, when he and Roland were hanging out with friends who were talking about how much they loved Bottle Rocket, Daniel had nodded along. But you hate Wes Anderson, Roland said later. I’m allowed to change my mind, Daniel said. He wondered if his annoyance at the preciousness of Wes Anderson movies was misinformed, if he had overlooked a hidden brilliance obvious to people more schooled than he was.

If only he had the right clothes, knew the right references, he would finally become the person he was meant to be. Like Roland—self-assured, with impeccable taste—but less vain. Deserving of love, blameless. But no matter how many albums he acquired or playlists he artfully compiled, the real him remained stubbornly out there like a fat cruise ship on the horizon, visible but out of reach, and whenever he got closer it drifted farther away. He was forever waiting to get past the secret entrance, and when the ropes did part he could never fully believe he was in. Another door materialized, another rope to get past, always the promise of something better.

He gripped his empty cup. He’d torn it apart, bent the rim back and forth until the plastic split in a single line. The math rockers had been playing for forty minutes. Inside, he didn’t see any familiar faces, so he got a new cup and poured one last vodka. He found Roland standing against the wall in a black blazer, dark hair buzzed close to his scalp. From the neck up Roland reminded Daniel of a nineteenth-century mobster, with his furtive features and disarming smile. In high school, both of them had been too different to receive attention from girls (or boys, whom Roland also dated these days), though Daniel liked to think it didn’t matter now. Roland was still short, compact but hard, his pointy face hawkish, his movements clipped and sharp. His manic energy no longer seemed as freakish as it had been in Ridgeborough, nor did the deep croak that had been slightly spooky on a twelve-year-old.

We’ve got this, Roland said. These guys are so derivative.

Daniel laughed, letting the room blur at its corners. How great it was to be back in the city, playing music with Roland again. They had been playing together for nearly half their lives, Daniel on guitar and vocals, Roland on vocals and beats and production and sometimes bass, shows at Carlough College house parties or the Ridgeborough Elks Lodge or in a barn out in Littletown. In high school there’d been a thankfully brief electroclash experiment, a power trio with their friend Shawn as the drummer, and an art-punk duo called Wilkinson | Fuentes, in which Daniel had tried and spectacularly failed at playing his white Squier with his teeth, Hendrix-style.

These guys sound like they’re jerking off to their dads’ Yes albums, he said.

Too many derivative acts, Roland said. Not like that set with the theremin.

The truth was, Psychic Hearts was derivative, a nü-disco nightmare, like Roland was trying to mix hair metal and Dracula with a thinned-out noise pop sound, jacking the title from an obscure Thurston Moore album. All that fronting and polishing only to be purposely stripped down. It was over-manufactured lo-fi, not the kind of music Daniel would choose to play, not his own music. He found Roland’s drum-machine beats predictable, the lyrics vague and murky, the eighties stylings too self-conscious. There had always been something distasteful in Roland’s stage strutting, how naturally the performance came to him, how effortlessly the crowd ate it up. But if Roland wanted to make music like this, Daniel wouldn’t let him down.

Roland had called last month and said he needed a guitarist for a new project. Our couch is yours as long as you need it. What’s the point in being all the way up there by Canada? Roland had moved down to the city right after high school, worked until he could afford to go to college part-time, and Daniel hadn’t seen him, had barely talked to him, in over a year. Nobody can do music with me like you can, Roland said, and the next day Daniel charged a one-way ticket and rode down to the city on a bus that smelled like diapers. It wasn’t as if he had any plans after getting booted from Potsdam. Like his parents said—like they’d remind him again tomorrow—he had thrown his future away.

With gray curtains stapled crookedly to the walls and graffiti crayoned across the bathroom door, this was an invite-only party where the bookers of venues like Jupiter, where Roland longed to play, came to check out bands. Roland knew the girl who managed the secret e-mail list, who had booked them on the basis of his past projects. If the Jupiter guy was into Psychic Hearts, he might book Daniel’s solo act one day.

Daniel scanned the crowd. A man with a mustache and white baseball cap was in the back by himself, wearing enormous brown hiking boots with orange laces. Daniel looked again at his own shoes. That him? The Jupiter booker?

Roland rolled his eyes. The math rockers had stopped playing. Anemic applause rippled through the front of the room and one of Roland’s friends looked over, gave a thumbs up. You ready for this?

Always, Daniel said.

THE FOURTH VODKA HAD been the mistake. By the time they finished the sound check, Daniel felt like he was seeing the room through another person’s glasses. He blinked at a spray-painted drawing of a cat on the far wall and returned to tuning his guitar, plucking the same string over and over. He wished more people were scrolling through their phones rather than looking at him, waiting for him to screw up. Roland played the first notes of the first song, started a beat on his Akai MPC60. Daniel produced a chord, sleek and assertive, and the song began to leak its colors, dark blues and lighter browns, like gut notes being forced through a tube. The six-song set list, scribbled at his feet, drifted up at him. He played a C, an E minor. Roland sang the first line. The notes sounded sad and clashing, deeply wrong, like the time he bit into a yellow square he thought was pineapple but turned out to be a very sharp cheese.

Roland kept going. They’d screwed up plenty at shows, and whoever was at fault would eventually right himself. It was their unspoken pact, like what parents said to kids—in case we get separated, return to the place we started from. But this time, the notes did not return. They had only practiced a few times, cocky with their years of history, and when Daniel squinted at the set list none

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What people think about The Leavers (National Book Award Finalist)

124 ratings / 38 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (4/5)
    This is one of those stories where your opinion of the characters fluctuates based on their actions and what they reveal during the novel. There were times when I thought a character couldn't change or defend their behavior, but surprised me. Like many people, you don't know what they've been through or what their present circumstance might be. Although a slow start and certainly some parts I enjoyed more than others, I liked it. It helped that I was reading it at the same time as my friend, Jim. Reading is more fun with a friend ;)
  • (3/5)
    Really wanted to love this novel, waited a long time to get a copy from my library, however I struggled to stick with it. The writing is okay -a bit more editing could have improved the flow. My main complaint is that it felt like the author did research, made a list of all the issues that could strike a young girl in rural China, a young boy being raised by a grandparent in China then being reunited with his mother, the fears and struggles of new immigrants, the reality of many female single immigrants, the insecurity of new adoptive parents, the insecurity of an adopted older child, the identity issues that may be caused by cross ethnic adoption, the search to find ones identity and purpose in life etc, and wrote her story to include them all.
    Many issues were familiar from other sources - exploitation of new immigrants by nail salon owners (including the hierarchy of tasks - who does the lowly waxing vs. easy manicure etc) - NY Times articles. the horror of children being separated from their parents due to deportation - 60 Minutes, the horrid conditions of the detention "jails" - several magazines - you get the picture - it's all here, and I mean all!

    What happens when children move to cities or other countries and send home money to poor rural towns- it's here! Chinese people having gambling issues (stereotypes much?) - it's here! Professors being clueless about pop-culture - yup! Immigrants owing huge amounts to loan sharks who fund their voyage to a new country -ditto!

    I wish the author had narrowed her focus, and given us more likable characters - at least one or two! I did not find any characters sympathetic - and that is a problem when so many other issues vex the novel.

    If you know nothing about immigrant struggles, how the laws can affect them, why people would leave their homes to seek a better life, you can learn from this novel, or you can watch a few episodes of 60 Minutes, a couple of documentaries, a newspaper to two - same difference.
  • (4/5)
    Anytime a book makes me gasp out loud as a major revelation becomes clear, I know it's a good one. This novel was beautifully written, often heartbreaking, and so very honest in its depiction of difficult relationships. The Leavers is a standout from start to finish.
  • (4/5)
    I thought I would like this book a lot more than I did. After all it won 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction. A lot of the reviews I read said it depicted life for immigrants fairly well. If so, I am a fortunate person. But I didn't like the characters that well. They were so unlikable. It took me a week and a half to read because I wasn't compelled to keep picking the book back up.
  • (3/5)
    The story of Deming and his mother. The story is told from both points of view, past and present, alone then together.I did not care for any of the characters. Deming as a child is great but as an adult, as Daniel, he is a jerk. His adoptive parents are also jerks. I felt bad for Polly, his mother, but she did not have her act together either. Had I not read this for book club I would probably never picked it up. The story was interesting enough but I never developed any empathy for the characters.
  • (4/5)
    A moving and powerful tale about taking risks and the struggles and heartaches endured for a chance at a better life.
  • (4/5)
    The Leavers is a coming of age novel that addresses issues of undocumented workers, motherhood, and adoption. The mother/son are the main characters in the novel. This book addresses the current issue of undocumented workers and exposes the system as heartless and using unacceptable cruel treatment of undocumented workers who come into the US. Because the mother is pregnant when she comes to the US and is unable to abort because she is too far along, the son is a US citizen. When the mother is taken in an ICE raid and unable to contact anyone, no one know where she is and she is eventually sent back to China and the boy is adopted as an older child to a Caucasian family in an area where there are no Chinese. Another issue addressed; adoption, cross cultural adoption. For educated people these parents don't seem to be very wise in their parenting but that happens. Eventually the son and mother find each other and both are still trying to find themselves. Both are complex characters. The book is a debut novel and felt a bit bumpy and my edition had quite a few errors that should have been caught by the editor. Issues addressed; undocumented workers, children of undocumented workers, human rights, motherhood, parenting, adoption, making children be something they are not, addictions, and PTSD. Perhaps there were too many issues.
  • (4/5)
    Deming is twelve when his mother disappears. He'd been secure and happy, although he knew his mother, an undocumented immigrant had her worries and money was always tight. But in his neighborhood everyone was poor and from someplace else and he had a best friend and a mother whom he adored. Her disappearance and his subsequent adoption by a pair of white university professors is traumatic, even as he tries to fulfill his new role as Daniel Wilkinson. There's a lot going on in Lisa Ko's debut novel, which addresses immigration, integration, adoption, cultural dislocation and growing up as a permanent outsider. At it's heart, though, it's a story about a mother and a son and their love for each other. It's a lovely novel, well-told, that fully deserves all the attention and awards its receiving.
  • (4/5)
    The Leavers uses a need we all share -- the need to belong - to illuminate important issues like immigration and transracial adoption.The problems Deming experienced with his white adoptive parents really opened my eyes to the child's perspective within a transracial adoption. Frankly, I couldn't understand how such intelligent, educated people could be completely ignorant of healthy ways to raise a child of color. Yet I know this fictitious story was based on actual experiences. Not to mention the fact that they kept inflicting their choices and expectations on Deming, which is a parenting style I will never support. As soon as Deming mentioned how much he loved playing guitar and wanted a guitar of his own for his birthday, and his adoptive parents bought him a laptop instead, I was like, "Oh, they're that kind of people."The Leavers made me take a look back at the children of immigrants and adopted children of color I've known and wonder about their personal experiences. They seemed happy, but now I question whether that was true or just my assumption based on outward behaviors and appearances?4 stars
  • (3/5)
    Deming's mother leaves for work one day and never comes home. When Chinese Deming is adopted by two white college professors, they change his name to Daniel and try and turn him into the son they have always wanted. The book then shifts to his mother Polly's point of view, outlining her childhood and how she came to America.I didn't think the back and forth between Daniel and Polly really worked. It may have been different if the author introduced Polly's pov earlier, or alternated in smaller chunks. Instead, it was jarring when Polly was introduced, and she seemed somewhat alien. Overall, not a bad book, just not one I would re-read.
  • (3/5)
    I'll mention first that I have problems with finishing books I'm reading after I receive bad news (my dad was in the hospital) but I gave this one a chance. I'm a white girl living under a crap administration, so I have been meaning to read even MORE books from people of color and immigrant stories than usual. If anything, this book is important as an immigrant story. Otherwise, my mind was trying to figure out what this book was reminding me of (possibly I read too much). Most similar to my mind, and I'm cringing while typing this because I deplored it, was 'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt. Thankfully, the main character Deming was a little more tolerable than the other. Deming becomes an adopted orphan in America while both parents are still alive but missing. Deming spends most of his life until he is a young adult puzzling out what might have happened when his mother doesn't come home one day. 'The Goldfinch' and 'The Leavers' both hit on same themes: New York City, gambling, orphans, identity and belonging. Luckily no rambling drug fevers though. But I feel like this shouldn't have been Deming's story, it's his mother's story. His mother went through some things... she was able to make Deming's life easier. And I think when Deming eventually finds out his mother's story, he should have realized it could have been much worse (like the kid from Goldfinch could have had it much much worse). Overall, I'm surprised that this book has so many workshops mentioned in the acknowledgments...sadly, I don't really see the extra work in the writing or the story. The writing is too matter of fact for me with too many unnecessary details (I think I had this problem with The Goldfinch too.) There is nothing here other than the immigrant experience that made this story unique enough and that is definitely something The Goldfinch doesn't have. I'm still trying to think of what it reminds me of. I think The Goldfinch will forever ruin books like this for me (it also happened with 'The Rise and Fall of Great Powers' by Tom Rachman.) Deming still seemed lost in the end, though I did love his love of music. But maybe I've been reading too many weird and wacky books lately to appreciate something this straight forward. Deming should read Tomoyuki Hoshino's book 'Me' if he wants to read about an identity crisis! But if a book about an immigrant is out there and being read, it's a good thing.
  • (5/5)
    Deming Guo is an eleven year old boy, living in the Bronx with his mother and her boyfriend. His mother is an undocumented Chinese immigrant, struggling to make ends meet. One day, Deming wakes up to find his mother gone and she never returns, leaving the boy distraught and confused. The boyfriend also leaves and Deming is left to the foster care system and is eventually adopted by a white, couple, from upper New York state. They are both college professors.This begins Deming's journey of trying to find his place in the world and trying to find out what happened to his mother, on that fateful day. This is a story, of immigration, assimilation and a search for happiness.This is a beautifully written novel and boldly and intricately, structured. This is a debut and I hope this is only the beginning for this talented author.
  • (4/5)
    The Leavers puts a face on illegal immigration and the challenges of belonging in a world where you speak a different language and may not resemble your peers in culture or appearance. This is the story of Peilan/Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant who came to America with hope for a brighter future. She was also single and pregnant. Initially ambivalent about having the child, when her son is born, she loves him fully and without hesitation. Polly's life is filled with hardship and fatigue, forcing her to acknowledge she cannot adequately care for Deming/Daniel, so she sends him back to China to live with her father. When her father dies, Deming returns at age 5 to his mother in New York City and an unknown culture. Five years later, Polly disappears, leaving Deming at the mercy of Polly's boyfriend and his sister. He ends up in foster care, and is adopted by a white couple who live in the suburbs in a completely different environment than he has ever known, and he is renamed Daniel. These adoptive parents provide support and encouragement throughout the years, but Deming/Daniel continues to wonder about his biological mother and where he belongs. This story evolves into the mystery regarding his mother's disappearance and how her abandonment has permeated his thoughts and actions.Algonquin fiction rarely disappoints its readers with the quality and substance of its novels. This one is no exception. Lisa Ko is a talented author who writes with confidence about a subject that is heartbreakingly real and very timely. She won won the PEN/Bellwether prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for a novel that reminds us of the struggles many among us endure.
  • (3/5)
    Although Lisa Ko has written numerous short stories and essays, The Leavers is her debut work as a novelist and the winner of the 2017 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. It's a particularly timely novel, too, examining the impact of illegal immigration on the families both directly and tangentially involved. The Leavers follows two entwined lives, alternating perspectives between them. First there is Deming, a young man who has yet to find his place in the world. After his undocumented mother Polly suddenly disappears when he is eleven, Deming is fostered and adopted by a white couple who rename him Daniel, never knowing what happened to her. The second is narrative is that of Polly herself, telling the story of her background, how she came to the United States from China, and eventually what really happened to her before and after she was gone from her son's life. The Leavers is in turns compelling and tedious, engaging and exasperating. The issues explored are important ones, but the telling of the character's stories, especially Deming's, can sometimes be frustratingly unfocused. Granted, this may also be a deliberate reflection of Deming's own obscured state of mind.
  • (4/5)
    This is a complex novel about a young boy, born in the U.S. and sent back to his mother's village in China as a toddler to be raised by his grandfather. When his grandfather dies, 6-year-old Deming is taken back to the U.S. by a relative to live once again with his mother. At first confused and frightened, he develops a secure attachment to his mother and her boyfriend, as well as the boyfriend's sister and her son. Then, when Deming is just 11 years old, his mother disappears. A white family adopts Deming, changes his name, and does their best to love and provide for him. Now Daniel, the young man struggles with trust, identity, and his sense of place or purpose in the world. In some ways, he is a surly teenager with whom reading this novel required spending more time than I wanted. However, this is also a poignant and sophisticated treatment of issues of immigration, family attachment, and the devastating impact of adult decisions. It is also a book of hope.
  • (4/5)
    How do you go through life when you don't know who you are? It's a question Lisa Ko examines in her new novel "The Leavers" that tells the gut-wrenching tale of a boy shifting between two worlds, two families, two languages, and wondering where he fits in. Deming/Daniel is born in New York to a young Chinese immigrant who has no moorings of her own and struggles to support herself and her child in a factory filled with other women like her, sleeping on the floor of an overcrowded apartment.Overwhelmed, she sends her one-year- old back to China to live with her father in a rural village where he learns to speak, savor the flavors of traditional China, and play with whatever is at hand. At the age of 5, he returns to America - learning another language, culture, and family routine - until his mother disappears. His subsequent placement in the foster system and his adoption by an educated, white family leave him questioning his identity and making some very poor choices along the way.Told in two voices - Deming/Daniel's and his mother Peilan/Polly's - "The Leavers" opens a window onto the plight of illegal immigrants and the toll it takes on children and parents. Lisa Ko's writing is assured, insightful, and true, bringing the reader on a journey that is at turns perilous, poignant, and infuriating, but ends on a satisfying note."The Leavers" won the PEN/Bellwether prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, deservedly so. Thank you to Algonquin Books and LibraryThing for the beautiful pre-publication copy.
  • (4/5)
    The Leavers is the story of Demming Guo and his birth mother Polly. Polly leaves for work one morning and doesn't return. After months of no word, Demming is taken to foster care, and eventually he is adopted by Peter and Kay Wilkinson, who move him to upstate New York.Polly and Demming are two wonderfully realized characters. The story is told from their points of view. We get their perspectives of the immigrant experience. Demming,or Daniel, as he is named by his adoptive parents, always feels like an outsider. In his story, we see the cost of immigration laws that tear families apart: "Daniel envied people who could take their origins for granted..." From Polly's story, we learn about the challenges of being undocumented. We always see how immigrant women, especially, are forced to make impossible choices. The novel covers about ten years. The first half dragged a little. There was perhaps too much about how lost Demming is. Still the characters are wonderful, and this novel is certainly timely.
  • (3/5)
    The Leavers is a well-written book with a lot of good things going for it, but for me as a whole, it was just OK. The subject manner is timely and I am sure relatable to many, I just couldn't connect with the characters on a very deep level. For me, the story was most alive when narrated by Peilan/Polly. I lost interest with Daniel's grown-up life and the music scene and I wanted more out of the story of the adoptive parents (or at least more from their characters). Overall the story flowed pretty well. I procrastinated picking it up at times but found that as soon as I started reading again it flowed well and was easy to stay focused.What Ko does well, is in showing the complexities of these relationships and that - more than plot - is what kept me going with this one. Some of Deming/Daniel's feelings I didn't always quite understand - and that was a good thing.It gave me the sense of how confused/torn he must have felt caught between his two lives (before and after). It showed the ambiguity of things. I'm a white woman born in America so maybe I am not always going to 'get' it completely, but this book helped me understand just a little more, which is what I was hoping for when I requested the book. I feel the author did her job in that regard. Would read another book by Lisa Ko in the future.
  • (4/5)
    The description of the Leavers by Lisa Ko included an Asian family, adoption, and immigration and deportation, all topics I enjoy reading about. And indeed, this was a realistic story of a poor Chinese woman Polly (Peilan) who comes to America illegally and pregnant. She has a fierce personality but struggles every step of the way - whether to have the baby, ultimately how to raise and support the son she names Deming in New York City, and how to have a better life. She finds a boyfriend and she and Deming live with him, his sister and his sister's son, Michael, who becomes like a brother to Deming. Then one day she disappears. The story meanders back and forth in time, told in the third person for some of it, but in the first person when Polly tells her own story. After she disappears, her son, Deming is eventually adopted by a white family in upstate New York. They change his name to Daniel. He is the only Chinese person in his school. He has many problems due to his abandonment. He does make a friend, who is also a minority and they bond over music. Ultimately, Deming flunks out of college, develops a serious gambling problem and goes back to New York City. Deming and Michael find each other and eventually he begins searching for his mother, as he searches for his own identity. This is a well written novel, that kept my interest, although some descriptions of Deming's music were unnecessary and overall it could have been edited more tightly. Sometimes I had to concentrate extra hard on where in time the story line was placed at the moment because it is not linear. It is almost exclusively a sober and unsentimental tale and certainly raises important issues for our time, especially illegal immigration and transracial adoption. The characters are drawn authentically, with attributes that are genuine, people with real foibles who make decisions in the best way they can despite the fact that others might do things differently. At other times, they really have no other choices. I will look for the next Lisa Ko novel.
  • (3/5)
    In Lisa Ko's The Leavers, Deming Guo doesn't need any help to know where he came from. Born in the United States to Polly Guo, who had herself smuggled to America to escape a dead-end life in China, Deming was actually sent back to his mother's home village for a few years to live with his grandfather while Polly worked endlessly to try to make some headway on her debts to the loan sharks that got her to New York City in the first place. When we meet Deming, he's in elementary school, living with his mother, her boyfriend, the boyfriend's sister, and her son, Michael, who's about the same age as Deming himself. Then, suddenly, after Polly starts talking about maybe moving to Florida for a job in a restaurant instead of the crushing grind of the nail salon she's been working in for years, she disappears. Already economically strapped, Polly's boyfriend and his sister can't afford to keep Deming with them for long, and he's soon adopted by a pair of white upstate professors, where his new parents dub him "Daniel", ostensibly to help him get along easier in the overwhelmingly white town he finds himself in.We next catch up with Daniel in his early 20s, back in NYC and doing musician gigs after he dropped out of college because of an online poker problem. He's crashing with his bandmate, Roland, the only other person of color that he went to school with, and trying to figure out how to avoid going back to school like his parents want him to. He's never found out what happened to his mother, but a chance reconnection with his childhood friend Michael, his curiosity is reawakened. As he starts to pursue the issue, the perspective changes and we get Polly's story...how and why she came to have Deming, how and why she came to America, and what actually did happen when she disappeared.I never DNF (do not finish) books, but if I did, I would have dropped this one after about the first 50 or so pages. While the way his childhood played out would give anyone emotional scars, Daniel himself is not an enjoyable character to spend time with. He's whiny, he steals money from his friends, he's a coward. I hated reading about him. But when the story switched to his mother, the book took off and soared. Polly is a dynamic, interesting character who practically springs off the page, and her story is easy to get emotionally invested in. I wish Ko had either started with more of Polly or just made her the primary focus of the book overall...starting with awful Daniel seems like asking to lose a decent chunk of your audience straight out the gate.And to miss this book entirely would be a shame. Although it's uneven, there's really solid stuff here. Like I've already raved about, Polly's story is a great one: she's a fantastic character and her struggles to make it are compelling. Ko also had me cringing in recognition at the way she painted Daniel's adoptive parents and their friends, who adopted a baby girl from China...the self-satisfied pats on their own backs for helping their children "connect with their culture" through food and dance classes, the way Deming is renamed like he's a puppy they picked up at the pound instead of a person. By the end, Ko has developed Daniel into a more understandable character and I came around to liking the book, but it really makes you slog through some bad (not even just like challenging, but bad) content to get there.
  • (5/5)
    Great story; I love how it was given. Good job writer! If you have some great stories like this one, you can publish it on Novel Star, just submit your story to hardy@novelstar.top
  • (4/5)
    very worth the read. I would definitely read another one of his books. If you have some great stories like this one, you can publish it on Novel Star, just submit your story to hardy@novelstar.top or joye@novelstar.top
  • (4/5)
    I may bump this up to 5 stars, depending on how it sits with me over time. I think this is an important book for us now as Americans - if reading fiction is supposed to make us more empathetic, as the studies say it does, then this book needs to reach people who don't see or understand the urgent need for compassion for undocumented persons. This is a very humanizing story, and it doesn't seek to depict pristine martyrs. Ko created characters that are people, not symbols. They aren't perfectly good or perfectly bad - they are three dimensional, and that makes it easier to see ourselves in them.

    As an adopted person, this book probably held some special interest for me, even though the circumstances of my adoption could not be more different than Deming's. Adoption is not a topic that I often see depicted in adult literature, and it was interesting to see it explored in this context.
  • (4/5)
    I decided to read this book because it had been a National Book Award Finalist, though I am beginning to be disappointed with these books lately. The book was educational for me because it dealt on a human level with the issue of immigration, cross culture adoption and the impact on all of those caught up in the complexities. The main story is about Polly and her son Deming. Polly is an illegal immigrant from China who ends up in New York City, like many illegal immigrants just melting into the system of low wage work and a poverty existence. The book gets into the details of her life, but the ultimate story surrounds her disappearance when her son is 11 and his subsequent adoption by a white couple from upstate New York. The book does a good job getting into Demings head(name changed to Daniel) as he has to come to grips with his dual life of his past and present. The book deals with many issues but at the heart is the problem of immigration and racial stereotypes on all sides. This was first novel and the writing was okay and I agree with other reviewers that it was a little stuffed with information that didn't help the story. All in all it was a worthwhile read.
  • (4/5)
    The most interesting thing about the book was when he was growing up with his mom in America.
  • (3/5)
    I enjoyed the vivid writing about not just the main characters Polly and Deming but those entrenched in their lives. The story itself about what could happen concerning illegal immigration and the impact it has on families was compelling. I am not a fan of films or books that jump back and forth between the past and present and I struggled with this in this book. Overall, I enjoyed this book
  • (4/5)
    I absolutely loved this book! Being a person who was adopted and who have moved to another country, a lot of this book really resonated with me. I enjoyed reading along as he tried to find himself, in a blend between his past and present, and as he tried to understand the mystery of his mother. Ko has really given us a story packed with detail, history and personality. Amongst all of the story, we find ourselves swimming in a sea of identity, in a world where borders seem to determine too much about who you are and who you become. I found Lisa’s details very apt and this made the story one that I thoroughly enjoyed. From start to finish, I was really put in awe by the way Ko was able to give the characters life and a true thought-provoking ability to reach me. I felt connected and really a part of this book, and did not want to put it down. Overall, this is a very good read and one I highly recommend! In a world like today’s, I honestly feel this should be suggested reading for schools, and one many reading lists for adults, and it really describes the life that a lot of people have to find their way through. Excellent book!
  • (3/5)
    The Leavers by Lisa Ko is about a mother and her son and what brings them together and tears them apart.When Deming Guo was 11, his Chinese immigrant mother, left for work at a nail salon and never returned home. In alternating narratives, this heart-wrenching literary novel tells both sides of their stories.This novel is also about immigration, belonging in a foreign place, figuring out who you are and who you want to be and what it means to have a family.After his mother’s disappearance, Deming Guo is adopted by a white family, Peter and Kay Wilkerson, and given the new identity of Daniel Wilkerson. Daniel struggles with the loss of his mother and the other people he considered his family. He had lost so much and he was lost himself and could never bring himself to fully accept the love his adoptive parents tried to give him. He kept everyone at arm’s length because he was scared they would disappear. He felt like a stranger and was always fearful and on edge, never feeling like he belonged anywhere.Daniel really struggles with himself. He goes to school for a while and quits, goes back, quits again. He joins a band and quits. He drifts around from place to place torn between his two identities (Daniel and Deming), never knowing who he really is or who he should be.Later in the book we learn what happened to his mother. Will he be able to forgive her for abandoning him? My book club didn’t care for this book. It has won a lot of literary awards, but I also felt like it just wasn’t as good as it could have been. Still, it provides a heart-breaking look into the world of immigrants and the battles they must face.Advertisements
  • (3/5)
    The Leavers, The Leavers, Lisa Ko, author, Emily Woo Zeller, narratorThere are many reasons why this book received so many accolades, the foremost, I believe, is because it is about current political issues. It attempts to present the plight of the immigrant, emphasis not on immigrant, or illegal immigrant, but rather on undocumented workers. I believe that the author was actually sympathetic to the “undocumented worker ignoring the illegal status. If you are progressive in your beliefs, and you believe in open borders, this book is for you. If not, it may be very disturbing for other reasons. Each of the characters seemed to blame others for their missteps. Each ignored the fact that their troubles, although real and devastating, were caused by their own choices, choices to disobey the laws of the United States. Each seemed to believe that he/she had the right to break the law.Gou Peilin was a willful and stubborn young teenager from Fuzhou, China. She did as she pleased, defying rules and regulations. Girls were not permitted to do many of the things that boys were, and she bristled and did them anyway. She rarely thought of the consequences of her actions. She went to Beijing to work in a factory and took up with her former boyfriend, Haifeng. She was unworldly and naïve. When she found herself pregnant, she decided she did not want to tell him, although he truly wanted to marry her. Desperate for freedom and a different life, she tried to abort the baby and never informed him that she was pregnant. In China, however, she encountered a bureaucracy she could not navigate, and so she could not end her pregnancy in a timely fashion. In desperation, she borrowed money from loan sharks and obtained false papers, bought passage to America and began what she hoped would be a new life. Her debts were enormous, in the end, upwards of $50,000 that had to be repaid. Still, she was exhilarated when she arrived in America, and she gave little thought to motherhood or her future. She was painfully naïve and unaware of the fact that at seven months along, she could not abort the child, even in the United States where abortions were more accessible. She was soon to be a working, single mother, and her life was about to become even more difficult.Her situation grew dire as she struggled to work and raise her son in New York City. However, one day, she met Leon and they fell in love. She moved in with him, to his apartment in the Bronx, and he cared for her and her son, Deming, now a toddler. Leon’s sister Vivian had been abandoned, and she also lived there with her son Michael. Peilin, worked as a nail technician, but as time passed, now known as Polly, Peilin had dreams of a better life. Leon, however, was not legal either, and he was content to stay where he was. He would not abandon his sister, and she also refused to move. When ICE raided the nail salon where Polly worked, she was rounded up and sent to a place called Ardsleyville, in Texas. It was a detention camp, based on the Willacy (County), detention camp in Texas. She was quickly lost in a system that was overwhelmed with illegals. No one could find her or help her. The telephone there did not work. When she was permitted one call, she did not accurately recall any phone number, so she could not reach out for help. For more than a year, she lived in terrible conditions, even solitary confinement. Although her own actions had caused her plight, she was angry with everyone else, and the horrific conditions she was forced to endure, changed her forever. Deming, her son, was lost to her when he was adopted by a white couple, both academics, and brought up as an American, losing much of his Chinese heritage. His name was changed from Deming Guo to Daniel Wilkinson. His new parents, Kay and Peter, had their own ideas about what his future should be, but it did not match his own ideas, which, if truth be told, were all over the place. Still, his birth mom encouraged his music, and they discouraged it. His mom allowed him more freedom and they made more rules. Soon, he felt he did not fit in anywhere, not in the white world or the Chinese world, not in the United States or in China. He seemed destined to failure, as he, like his birth mother, made one foolish choice after another. Although his parents wanted a more traditional life for him, with a college degree and a stable future, he chose to drink too much, became addicted to gambling and had dreams of being a famous guitarist. He was talented, but seemed to always set himself up for failure by never adequately preparing for the task before him. The fact that he was adopted into a different racial family seemed to weigh heavily upon him, and he didnot feel comfortable in most situations. He was also adopted as a boy of 12, so although grateful for his life and his new family, which was far different from the life of poverty he lived with his mother, both lifestyles offered different advantages to him, which he struggled to understand and appreciate.As the decades passed, the reader was given a window into the world of the undocumented immigrant/illegal alien’s struggles in the United States. However, as they rail against the injustices that they must endure, they seem to fail to recognize their own complicity in the shaping of the situation.I did not find myself liking the characters or their behavior. I found them self-serving and irresponsible. They made a choice to enter a country illegally and were upset when they were arrested for doing so. They contrived all sorts of ways to try and become legal, with false papers, through marriage, etc., once in the states, but often were unsuccessful. The illegality of their behavior seemed inconsequential. They came for the opportunity America offered, although in China they did not suffer terribly from deprivation. The problem was that there were few opportunities to leave the peasant class, in China, and that seemed to be the driving force behind Peilan’s often erratic behavior and dreams. She wanted to succeed, to get ahead, to accomplish something more. I thought the book was too long. The timeline was often confusing, and the subject matter jumped from topic to topic, sometimes without fully exploring and developing the one before beginning another. When the book ended, I was surprised, since there were still many loose ends that were not tied up. Did Deming, now Daniel, ever find or meet his real biological father? Did his biological father, Haifeng, ever discover that Deming was his son? What happened to Yong, Polly’s husband, after she went to Hong Kong? Would she ever get to America to see Deming again? Which life did Daniel wind up identifying with, his Chinese or his American? Was the author for or against interracial adoption, for or against illegal immigration? Did Deming/Daniel or Peilin/Polly ever find out what they truly wanted, who they really wanted to be? Did they find what they were searching for? Did Daniel feel out of place because he was adopted into a white family? Could that white family truly understand what he needed as a young Chinese boy? Children who were adopted as infants seemed to fare better in the story. Was that a fact? Although the characters seem to take great risks, they seemed ignorant of the rules and completely naïve about the chances they were taking.The struggles Deming felt about his parents and his responsibility toward each was troubling for him. To whom did he owe the most allegiance? Who was his true mother? Was it the mother who wanted him desperately and chose a grown boy to raise, or the mother who had never wanted to be a mother in the first place, who had been unable to find him and who stopped searching for him, eventually pretending he no longer existed?The immigrant plight seemed to be conflated by the author with the illegal immigrant plight, and the issues were not clearly defined or developed. The characters were surprised when their foolish decisions had unpleasant consequences. It was as if they decided they could make their own rules and the laws of the country were immaterial. Should the laws of a country be defied or ignored? None of the questions I raised were ever answered. In the end, there was one conclusion that stood out for me. Somewhere, someone in the book said, Americans were not all white. The converse is that in China, the Chinese are all Chinese. The book may actually have pointed out an interesting idea that is often not discussed. It is hard to assimilate; it is hard to overcome the stares and the inherent bias and confusion of people who see things they do not understand. We tend to oversimplify our problems in America with a one-size fits all solution.
  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    This is a book of bad decisions and unrealistic expectations. The novel centers a Chinese mother and son. She comes to the United Stated illegally and tries to fashion a here. There is a big build up till mother and son are separated. The other theme is about when the son (now older) goes on a quest to find his mother and find out why his mother abandoned him. This issue seems to force him into making into really poor decisions and leave him goalless life (except finding mom) The book is well written and deserves all the plaudits it has received, Read the book. Don's listen to it on CD as the narrator is a drama queen.

    1 person found this helpful