San Francisco has long been a hub of Chinese-American history, but, in her first novel, local author Kathryn Ma takes a fresh look at the ties that still stretch across the Pacific. The Year She Left Us tells the story of three generations of Chinese-American women living in San Francisco. The matriarch, Gran, leaves Mao’s China to study at Bryn Mawr, start a family, and run a successful restaurant. Her two daughters inherit all of her ambition – Charlie becomes a lawyer and Les a judge – but never marry. Instead, the younger daughter, Charlie, decides to adopt a baby girl from China. And so the scene is set for Ma’s exploration of family, cultural identity, and the inextricability of the present and the past.
The four women take turns narrating what happens when Ari, the adopted daughter, returns to China to visit her orphanage and suffers a nervous breakdown. Somewhat unsettlingly, Ma allows Ari and Gran to speak in the first person but uses the third person for Charlie’s and Les’ points of view. The frame of the story also never fully develops. Ma hints that Gran and Ari are collaborating to write a therapeutic account of this traumatic year in the family’s life, but Charlie’s and Les’ contributions are never explained.
Nevertheless, the alternating voices reveal a rewardingly complex story. This is more than a tale of family dysfunction, or even of an adopted child coming to terms with her identity. Ari is not the only one wrestling with the past. Each of the women is sheltering a secret, and each is affected by truths she can never know: Ari wonders about her birth parents; Charlie tries to forget the man who left her soon after the adoption; Les refuses to consider the possibility of marrying her long-time lover; and Gran is haunted by what, and whom, she left behind in China.
Ma skillfully links the family’s personal troubles to wider social and historical forces, from the Cultural Revolution to the racial and gender prejudice Charlie and Les face at work. Her satirical tone never obscures the pathos she brings to this tale of cultural and personal confusion. As the four women’s secrets are revealed one by one, their individual vulnerabilities and unexpected strengths emerge as well. By portraying four characters struggling with the same twisted family history in very different ways, Ma makes her protagonists vivid and unpredictable. With sympathy for each of these characters and their unique troubles, Ma breaks down the label ‘Chinese-American’ into a complex, human story.