The Leavers tells the interleaved stories of a Chinese-American boy who is apparently abandoned by this mother, then adopted by a white couple, and of his mother, who was brutally deported in a raid of the beauty salon where she worked, undocumented.
Parts of the story are wonderful, capturing everyday moments in the boy’s life as he struggles in school, devours junk food with his cousin, or spies on his adoptive parents, and showing his distress as he is brutally yanked from one world to another. But some parts, especially dialog, seem lifted from a cheap self-help book — and the overall logic of the story is somewhat flawed. If you can get past the stilted bits, it’s an interesting look at both adoption and immigration.
Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo is the only request a young mother makes when relinquishing her son to his adoptive parents. Eight years later, after some mild shenanigans on the part of the son, his mother worries that he may need to meet his birth parents, which means that the family needs to drive across the country to Montana. It sounds like the story may be about the son’s anguish, but it’s not, not at all. It’s about the mother’s anguish about her life, her marriage, and perhaps, but only a little bit about her son’s well-being. During an epic road trip she faces her past and her regrets — and then the story ends, abruptly, stranded in a snow storm. It feels like a cop-out, after a rich story line.
I love PD James (and here, here ). But I did not love Innocent Blood, although it has been praised as one of her finer books. It’s more ambitious than the others, since whatever murders occur as either planned or solved long ago, so the focus is on an 18-year old who discovers her surprising biological mother. Sadly the story becomes less and less believable, albeit starting from a wonderful description of the complicated relationship she has with her mother, whom she considers to be lacking in many ways, and her father, whom she admires but also resents. After that, too may details just don’t add up and I found myself focusing on them and losing interest in the narrative.
In An Affair with My Mother: A Story of Adoption, Secrecy and Love, the author recalls her search for her biological mother, who was pressured to give her up for adoption in the Ireland of the 1970s, at a time and place where unwed motherhood was shameful, so much so that there mother’s father stopped speaking to her after she got pregnant.
She does find her mother, and her mother is delighted to meet her, but having had to hide her past for so long, she insists on clandestine meetings, which is very painful for her daughter. I found the story to be strongest and most interesting when it describes how adoptions were managed in Catholic Ireland at the time of the author’s birth, and how shame and secrecy were heaped both on the birth mothers and, more surprisingly, the adoptive parents. Indeed, the author was lucky that her parents told her early and matter-of-factly that she was adopted.
On the other hand, the story occasionally rambles and, although it’s understandable that the author is distressed by her mother’s refusal to acknowledge their relationship publicly, at least at first, it’s puzzling that she cannot see that opening up to her husband and children upend her carefully reconstructed life.
Where Women Are Kings tells a very hard story, of a young boy who has suffered terrible abuse by his mentally ill mother, and others, and who, adopted by a wonderful couple, struggles to fit in his new life. The story is told in alternating chapters between his new life and disturbing letters from his birth mother that slowly reveal what happened to the boy before the adoption. It’s all very dark but beautiful in the saddest possible way. Perhaps not what you are looking to read on summer vacation but there is a lot of love in the book, especially from the adoptive mother and the wonderful adoptive grandfather, and the descriptions of the troubled child are haunting.
Lucky Us is the story of two half-sisters trying to make a life with no help from their parents who are dead, gone, or pretty much uninvolved. The author manages to meld historical research and imagined letters between the sisters into a coherent narrative with many interesting characters, including the sisters of course, with their sometimes puzzling life choices, but also the remaining parent (who is portrayed not as a loser but as a flawed but congenial man), and assorted friends and hangers-on with their own backstories. For instance, their on-time employer could be portrayed solely as a nouveau riche with social anxieties for herself and her children, but she is also shown attending their father’s funeral, which does her social climbing no favors.
And while the sisters are not lucky at all, the story is not gloomy.
The Mothers reads like a memoir of a woman who, with her husband, wants to adopt a child through an open adoption. The story details the bureaucracy, the stilted process to qualify as an adoptive parent, and the schemes of birth mothers and others who pray on the parents. The book would stand quite well as a memoir, I thought, but it did not work as a novel. It’s boring: we know that it’s hard for a childless couple to witness others’ pregnancies and children. We can imagine that being scammed by a birth mother must be very painful. But we’d like, I’d like, a little more from a novel: a different twist, perhaps, a complex moral dilemma (beyond whether to check all the races’ boxes on the application), or a good climax of some sort. None of that here, beyond the very funny scenes of the adoption workshops where the would-be parents eye each other to decide which of them will be chosen first.