Book Pairings: The Leavers by Lisa Ko and Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

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This pairing is so perfect its hard to believe I didn't do it on purpose.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko was one of my Book of the Month selections in the spring.  I had heard so many great things about this debut novel, so I chose it without hesitation. The story centers on Deming Guo and his mother, Polly. Deming is born in New York, but spends the first few years of his life in China with his grandfather while his mother saves enough money to support him. When she brings Deming to live with her at age six, they establish a life for themselves with her boyfriend, his sister and her son, Michael. When Deming is eleven, Polly goes to work at the nail salon one day and never returns home. Separated from each other, Deming and Polly both feel lost and unmoored, and they spend the next ten years trying to figure out where they belong.

This book was a slow burn for me, but the beauty of the prose and the mystery about Polly kept me turning the pages. Also, the structure is unique, with both third-person narration following Deming, and first-person narration from Polly. The last third of the book picked up in pace and tied up all the loose ends in a satisfying, but not overly sappy way. Ko is a gifted writer and even when the action felt lacking, I often found myself admiring her turn of phrase and unusual descriptions.

"But his life had been happening all along, in the jolt of the orange juice on his tongue or how he dreamt in two languages, how his students' faces looked when they figured out the meaning of a new word, the wisp of smoke as he blew out his birthday candles. The surge and turn and crunch of a perfect melody."

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At Book Expo in June, I had the pleasure of meeting Jamie Ford and receiving an advance copy of Love and Other Consolation Prizes, scheduled to be released on September 12th. His novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, is one of my favorite historical novels, so I knew I needed to read his new book as soon as possible.

This evocative novel tells the story of Ernest Young (originally named Yung Kun-ai), also separated from his mother as a child when she sends him to America alone to give him a better life. Based on a real event, Ernest is put up for auction at the 1909 World's Fair in Seattle and is purchased by the Madam of a high-end brothel. Ernest becomes close with the Madam's daughter and with one of the servant girls, creating a makeshift family in an unfamiliar world. 

The story alternates between two time periods, 1962 when Ernest is in his late sixties, and the early 1900's when Ernest first comes to America. The two World's Fairs in Seattle in 1909 and 1962, anchor these two parts of the story. Ford's impeccable historical research brings the setting and the characters to life and makes the story heartbreakingly real.

These two books have so many things in common, it's almost uncanny. They both have split narrative structures. Both Deming and Ernest are orphaned as young boys, forced to make their own way in the world and figure out where, or who is truly home. They both feel split between their Chinese and American identities, like they never really belong in either place. They feel torn between their given and American names, unsure of which language to speak and which place is truly home. In the end, both Ko and Ford leave me with a sense of hope that Deming and Ernest will be okay, though the search may have been difficult, they will finally find home after all.