Blog Tour Review: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko’s exceptional debut novel, The Leavers, was hand-picked by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction in the States, and is now the launch title for Little, Brown UK’s new imprint, Dialogue Books, which will feature “stories from illuminating voices often excluded from the mainstream,” specifically those “for, about and by readers from the LGBTQI+, disability, working class and BAME communities.” I highly recommend it to fans of Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. It’s an ambitious and satisfying novel set in New York and China, with major themes of illegal immigration, searching for a mother and a sense of belonging, and deciding what to take with you from your past.

Eleven-year-old Deming Guo and his mother Peilan (nicknamed “Polly”), an undocumented immigrant, live in New York City with another Fuzhounese family: Leon, Polly’s boyfriend, works in a slaughterhouse, and they share an apartment with his sister Vivian and her son Michael. Deming gets back from school one day to find that his mother never came home from her job at a nail salon. She’d been talking about moving to Florida to work in a restaurant, but how could she just leave him behind with no warning?

Ten years later, Deming is Daniel Wilkinson, adopted and raised in upstate New York by a pair of white professors, Peter and Kay. He’s made a mess of his life with drinking and an addiction to online poker, and has been expelled from college. Now the guitar is his life, but even his best friend and bandmate Roland Fuentes isn’t willing to cut him any slack when he doesn’t show up for rehearsals and performances. Peter and Kay are pulling strings to get Daniel accepted into their college, but he keeps screwing up every chance he’s given. He can only hope his efforts to reconnect with his birth mother will be more successful.

The novel shifts fluidly between a third-person account of our protagonist then (Deming) and now (Daniel) and a first-person confession as Polly explains all: her upbringing in poverty in China, her pregnancy out of wedlock, her illegal entry to the United States, and why she had to leave Deming so suddenly. Polly and Deming/Daniel are vibrant characters, and I ached for their struggles. Both have the sense of being split between lives, of “juggling selves.” Their collective story is about figuring out who you are, what can be made right, and what to leave behind as you move forward in life. It’s such a beautiful novel, and an impressive debut from Lisa Ko.

My rating:


The Leavers will be published in paperback by Dialogue Books on April 26th. My thanks to Little, Brown for the free copy for review.


15 responses

  1. Now this definitely seems like one for the reading list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to find some “takers” (as opposed to leavers)!


  2. Fans of The Nix? That would be me, then. I hadn’t come across this one before but will be adding it to my ever-lengthening list. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did think of you, Susan. I was looking back at some of my stand-out 5-star reads and so many of them are about the search for the mother: The Goldfinch, The Nix, The Heart’s Invisible Furies.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This looks great (I didn’t like Little Fires Everywhere but I’d be surprised if this suffers from the same faults, which for me were quite particular to that novel!) I must read The Nix as well.


    1. It came to mind mostly for the Asian-American adoption theme and the Chinese mother who has to give up her child.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting, I felt that ultimately got sidelined in Little Fires Everywhere, so looking forward to this one!


  4. Ooh, I loved Preparation For the Next Life… Good news that Ko is getting published in the UK!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hoped I could lure you with that comparison 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This one’s been on my TBR list for a while now and I just haven’t gotten around to giving it a go. Your review makes me want to bump it up the list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you’ll enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. My first inclination is to feel sorry for the boy and be angry at the mother, but I suspect that after reading it, I would feel sorry for them both. Definitely adding it to the list!


    1. We definitely come to sympathize with Polly as the book goes on. It’s a very balanced picture.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] … an entertaining, wildly unpredictable adventure, told with empathy and wit” Sounds like The Leavers, which is a Very Good […]


  8. […] Adoption is my link to The Leavers by Lisa Ko. When he’s abandoned by his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant in the USA, […]


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