A Lifetime of Looking, with Lisa Ko (A Book Review of “The Leavers”)

Days after reading Lisa Ko’s The Leavers (Amazon | Indiebound), one question lingered in my mind: can we really spare our loved ones the most gory, painful thing in our lives in order to save them–whatever “saving” looks like?

The story is written in the same format Arundhati Roy’s latest book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, where you find out more and more about the characters, the bulk of the story and really, the depth of the plot as you go on. But I guess that’s a major driving point in the book, the search for elusive truth. As with our lives, tbqh.

The Leavers is a book about a Chinese immigrant family in New York, a mother and her son, as they struggle to make a new life for themselves away from home. And almost like every immigrant family I know, both Pei-lan/Polly and Deming/Daniel go through the process of navigating cultural shifts and managing personal transformations.

From learning how to survive as an immigrant (all the bureaucracy, whether above ground or not), the tenderness between mother and son grows with each new discovery. Each day that they are together, specially when Polly has the rare day off, the duo ventures out into the new world they’ve made for themselves.


Amidst reveling in the simultaneous grandeur and details of the Big Apple, poverty, the struggle to assimilate and immigration woes descend upon the family. And it only gets worse.

In one swift shift, Deming finds himself with no mother. Polly disappears, leaving no trace. With no other option available, he is sent to a foster home in upstate New York as he becomes Daniel Wilkinson, son of a white progressive couple.

This move unleashes a wave of shock to the young boy, who was already trying to assimilate into a mainstream American society. Far from the city, he had to go through another wave of acculturation in the suburbs, in a town called Ridgeborough, where there were barely people out on his street. Where he was the only Asian student in his school.


As Deming/Daniel makes his way back to New York City, he moves on his own rhythm much to the dismay of his adoptive parents. He seems lost, drifting from one thing to another, aimless. His parents try to convince him to go back to school to no avail. They plead, they cajole. In the deepest of his troubled heart lay the mystery of why he was abandoned by his own mother.

His closest relationships all seem to fall in disrepair, as he loses his friends one by one. He is neither desperate nor lacking, but he entraps himself in a vicious vice that results in another severed tie. It seemed like no matter what Deming/Daniel does, he is never in the right place.


The Leavers is a story of loss, love and redemption, the journey of immigrants trying to ground themselves in the country’s roughest edges. It provides a pivotal and critical look at how families can be torn apart by an unjust system, with promises of mending that never seem to quite fit well.

* * *

fic-ko-the-leaversThe Leavers (Amazon | Indiebound) by Lisa Ko
Algonquin Books (353 pages)
May 2, 2017
My rating: ★★★
The Leavers


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