My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee: A review

 

I was very excited to get my hands on the new Chang-Rae Lee book. I've heard and read so much praise for his previous books, none of which I had ever read even though I had the best intentions of doing so. So I jumped at the chance to read this one. I found his writing to be very controlled, directed, and philosophical in the way that he developed his narrative. The narrative, in other words, seemed to take us exactly where Lee wanted us to go, but that was not necessarily a good place.

Lee's protagonist is a 20-year-old college student from New Jersey named Tiller, who at the time that we meet him has had some sort of traumatic experience that has brought him, for reasons that are unknown, to the Hong Kong airport, where he meets Val, a single mother in her 30s who is also from New Jersey. It turns out they have things in common; Val, too, has had some kind of trauma in her life and they are each one-eighth Asian in heritage and both are only children. These commonalities form a basis for an instant relationship that continues when they return to New Jersey. 

Back in New Jersey, they move in together and we begin to learn something about their backgrounds. Val is in the witness protection program after having informed on her husband who was apparently involved in organized crime and possibly in aiding and abetting terrorists. We also learn about Tiller's childhood and about his recent friendship with a Chinese-American entrepreneur named Pong Lou. Tiller had accompanied Pong Lou on an Asian business trip where they spent a lot of time feasting on gourmet foods, all of which are lovingly described. But the trip ended badly for both men and finally led to Tiller being alone and abandoned in the Hong Kong airport where we met him.

Back in New Jersey with Val, Tiller meets her son Victor Jr., a precocious 8-year-old. His precocity reveals itself in relation to food. He is quite the little chef, creating amazing dishes on a daily basis which leads Val and Tiller to assist him in opening a pop-up restaurant in their home. The restaurant becomes instantly famous in the neighborhood, leading to people lining up at their door every night to partake of the latest gourmet meal.

If all of this sounds a little implausible, it is only because it is. 

First, I found the character of Tiller to be unbelievable. He is twenty years old and he's supposed to be this worldly-wise individual. He has certainly had some worldly experiences, but I see no evidence that they have made him wise.

Second, Val, who is in witness protection apparently because her life is in danger, cooperates in the opening of a pop-up restaurant that brings the world to her dining room and makes her very visible in the neighborhood.

Third, the eight-year-old master chef. No, it's just too much.

This is really a book for foodies. All of the imagery and the best descriptive passages here have to do with food and I can understand how such a person might really get involved in this book and enjoy it. My personal food preferences are more pedestrian and downhome and the narrative was simply overkill and lost on me.

So, my first experience with Chang-Rae Lee was disappointing. I think my main problem was that I just didn't believe Tiller and he was the narrator, the vehicle through which the story was revealed to us. I just couldn't take him or his experiences seriously. This hasn't necessarily put me off Chang-Rae Lee. I still hope to go back and read those other books, but I would only recommend this one to serious foodaholics.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 


Comments

  1. I am about to start this one. I have read all of his novels. The Surrendered is my top favorite. I like how he tries all kinds of stories. Some are more successful than others in my opinion. Another one I loved was Native Speaker.

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    1. I'll put those on my Chang-Rae Lee TBR list. Perhaps you will enjoy this one more than I did. I'll look forward to seeing your comments.

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  2. I've heard so many mixed things about this author that I'm on the fence when it comes to picking up the books. Some people love him to death and some people just can't get into him.

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    1. I gather that he marches (and writes) to the beat of a different drummer, one that only he can hear and that his books are quite varied in content. I think I'm going to give his others a try, but as I indicated, I can't really recommend this one unless you are a serious foodie and reading it for the food content.

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  3. I'm not sure if I'll read this book, because I find characters very important and from your review I can make out that I'll be pretty annoyed by the characters.

    I do see that Judy is going to read this book, so I'm curious what she will say! :)

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    1. Well, I was certainly annoyed by the characters, but others may find them perfectly lovable and charming!

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  4. I had a similar reaction as yours. I read and reviewed his novel On Such a Full Sea in 2014 and came away from it disappointed, so wasn't geared to read his new one. I found that 2014 novel to be a bit of a slog and not that interesting to me so I'm passing on him for now.

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    1. That's interesting. Most of the comments I've seen from those who have read him have been glowing in their praise, so I feel affirmed to see that someone else has had a similar reaction to mine!

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  5. I am waiting for the arrival of this book. It is sad that it was disappointing for you.

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    1. Don't let my opinion prejudice you. You might like it better.

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  6. I like unreliable narrators but I think there is a big difference between being unreliable and being unbelievable. I would be annoyed by all of the things that bothered you as well. Sorry it was a dud for you!

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    1. Well said. Unreliable narrators are in with fiction writers these days. In fact, the book I just finished also featured one, but she was honest about her unreliability and I had no problem believing her. That is a huge distinction.

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    2. Yes! I think The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl really opened the floodgates on that type of narrator to re-emerge en masse.

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  7. I have yet to read anything written by Chang-Rae Lee at this point in time. I have seen the buzz for My Year Abroad and was going to add it to my ever growing reading wishlist. But after reading your review of My Year Abroad, I'll pass on this novel. I would be annoyed by all of the things that bothered you as well.

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    1. I don't ever like to discourage anyone from reading a particular book because their reaction might be quite different from mine. That being said, yes, I did find these characters especially annoying.

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