I really love Yiyun Li’s short stories, and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl was one of my favourite books – if not the favourite – from 2012. So I was really excited to see that she had a new book, and that I could request it from NetGalley to review. Sadly, I was quite disappointed by this book, although there were some good points.
The book’s tone has the same darkness and subtle foreboding that her short stories have, and I really like the feeling of reading Li’s writing. But for some reason – and I haven’t really figured out why – the writing style and pace of the Li’s writing didn’t really work for this novel. Whereas her short stories have basically perfect pacing and plot development, this book seemed to plod along somehow. And I really wanted to like it.
I didn’t really like the plot or the structure, which is centered around three friends who grew up in China – two girls and a boy. The boy stays in China, but the two women end up in the US, and both are unable to connect to other people or live normal lives. The implication is that this is due to a horrible event that happened in their childhood, where another woman – their friend – was poisoned but not killed (her death is a catalyst for the major plot lines and reminiscences of the book). There are a few other story lines around real estate, an orphan raised by two Christian nuns, the Cultural Revolution in China, and a man dating one of the many young girls who move to Beijing to make a fortune and/or meet a man. Each element may be somewhat interesting, but it failed to add up to something, and it felt a bit contrived to me.
I found all of the characters hard to relate to; they are cold and harsh and abrupt. This tends to be true of her characters in short stories, but it works there: you wonder what happened to them, and why they cannot live normally. But in expanding to fill the larger length, I felt weighed down with emptiness, and I didn’t feel anything about any of the characters.
So overall, I think I’ll give this book a 2 on Goodreads. I still like her writing – I have some quotes below, but I just didn’t think that this book built up to a good novel.
Quotes (note that the page numbers are based on an uncorrected proof):
“Loyalty to the past is the foundation of a life one does not, by happenstance or by will, end up living.” (11)
“What can we do but to persist questioning privately, or, for those among us insisting on the appropriateness of adulthood, to go on living as though we have all the answers?” (21)
“Nothing destroys a livable life more completely than unfounded hope.” (66)
“Only in a drama would an old man lay his hand on the coarse bark of a tree and mourn in advance his own death; in real life, a man’s grief for himself was as wordless as the dim light in Grandpa’s eyes, the passing days pooling into a stale puddle around his dying body.” (104)
“much of life’s comfort comes not from the absoluteness of happiness and goodness but from the hope that something would be good enough, and one would find oneself happy enough.” (137)
“It takes courage to find solace in trivialities, willfulness not to let trivialities usurp one’s life.” (187)