Ambiguous Ambition

The Year She Left Us
by Kathryn Ma

Review by Christopher R. Craddock (c) 2015

Ambiguous Ambition

Kathryn Ma’s debut novel tells the story of Ari, a foundling adopted in China and raised in San Francisco. Her adopted mother is Charlie, a single Chinese-American woman who is a lawyer in the Public Defender’s office. Her sister Les is a judge; their mother, called Gran, is a feisty Chinese immigrant who came to America during the war, went to Bryn Mawr; ran a restaurant, and is now retired. The story is told from the perspectives of these four women in alternating chapters. Ari has issues that cause her to act out, and to set off on a quest looking for who knows what? That certain je ne sais quoi? She has trouble adjusting to the fact that she was adopted–abandonment issues–but more than that the lack of a father. She leaves in search of a married man who was planning to leave his wife to marry Charlie, but somehow never did. This is the main drama–why the book is called The Year She Left Us–but the other characters have their own dramas, such as mama drama, sibling rivalry drama, getting too close to clients and their children drama, and for Judge Les, a controversial case that troubles the Chinese-American community and could derail her career no matter how she rules. It is a quite ambitious first novel, though some of the issues it takes on are left ambiguous, unresolved.

The settings are the San Francisco Bay Area, China, and Juneau, Alaska. I am only familiar with the Bay Area, but I can vouch that the author has really captured that neck of the woods well. The sojourn to Alaska allows for some great scenery as well, along with a great drunken epiphany ‘neath the Aurora Borealis. The second part of the novel is called False Outer Point, which is a place in Alaska that seems to be as far as you can go, but once you get there, you see it extends further. This is seen as a metaphor for Ari’s wild goose chase after the man who would have been her father: Aaron. It is an actual place in Alaska, as well as an apt metaphor for Ari’s folly (Alaska was actually called Seward’s Folly after Lincoln’s Secretary of State purchased it from Russia for $7 million in 1867. It turned out to be a stellar investment but at the time seemed to be pure folly).

It is hard to talk about a novel like this without comparing it to Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, even though Asian Authors  must get so sick of always being compared to Amy Tan. Anyway, that book had a tight structure and form, with a focus on four mother/daughter relationships where the normal strain that exists between all mothers and their daughters was exacerbated by the gap between China and America. Bam. The Mah Jong games provided not only a means for the women to get together and gab, but also a form for the book. Even though Amy Tan doesn’t rigidly follow the format, it provides a structure for her to hang the individual stories on.

Kathryn Ma structured her book around four women. The story is told from the four different perspectives. Ari is adopted and raised by her mother, aunt, and her grandmother. At one point her Aunt Les is discussing Ari’s departure with her lover. He says that perhaps Ari is overwhelmed by being raised by three strong women. He doesn’t say it, but I was thinking: too much yin but no yang. Les compares it to the Three Fates of Greek mythology. According to the myth, the three women decide a person’s fate by unrolling the thread of life, the second one decides how long the thread will be, and the third makes the cut. She sees herself as the third one, the one who drops the hammer, but as a judge, wouldn’t she be the one who judges how long to make the thread? This metaphor didn’t work so well for me, but maybe it’s more a matter of me disagreeing with what a character in the story said than disagreeing with the writer. Though actually, I don’t agree that the character would say that, either. But I admire the attempt to inject a little Greek mythology into the book. I also admire how she took on so many big issues, though perhaps she bit off a little more than she could chew?

China is a big complicated issue by itself, what with the vast political and economic changes it is going through. One of the most complicated issues is the adoption of large numbers of girls, because couples are only allowed one child, and often want that one child to be a boy. What are the ramifications for a society that will have such a skewed ratio of males to females? Meanwhile, in the United States, there are so many Chinese girls being adopted by westerners that they even have a support group, WACD, Western Adopted Chinese Daughters, and Ari and the other girls in the group call themselves Whackadoodles. Ari should have an advantage, as her mother is Chinese, so it is not as obvious that she was adopted, but she is envious of the other kids with White parents because they have fathers. There is a character named Wei Wei, an older adoptee who serves as a role model for the other Whackadoodles, at least until she gets embroiled in a media scandal. She was an interesting character, but her story was kind of a loose end that wasn’t tied up.

There are a lot of loose threads left lying around like severed fingers. No, really. The threads are metaphorical, but the severed fingers are real. But why? Also, spoiler alert: Ari doesn’t find her would-be adopted father Aaron in Alaska but she does find his son Noah. After it rains for forty days and nights you wonder if they are going to hook up on the ark, raising the issue of whether Noah is her brother, her half brother, her step brother, or her half step brother? It’s whackadoodle! Ma was very ambitious in her first outing, loading her novel with issues galore, but she drops this one like a hot ‘you say potato, I say potah-to.’

In spite of some ambiguous ambitions and ambitious ambiguity this was a compelling novel that kept me involved with the characters beyond the False Outer Point right up to the True Outer Point.

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