Book Reviews

Review: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

This book is everything to me. As an adopted Chinese American, this book voiced things I couldn’t begin to vocalize in more eloquent ways than I will ever be able to express. Read this book.


One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy.” But far away from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.


book review The Leavers by Lisa KoI mean I think the main thing I can say, right off the bat, is that anyone who is a Chinese American adoptee should read this. It isn’t even that this story is exactly like mine, or even like many of the other adoptees I’ve met, but that this is the start of a group of books that tackles issues that resonate. I don’t come across very many adoption books. It is a sheer delight that this book exists and the beginning of, hopefully, more books to come that feature adoption.


It deals with the messy and complex issues of adoption, borders, families, and parenthood. The Leavers examines the ways we make sense of our identity and how we navigate through the world. The themes are rich, complex, and deeply nuanced. There’s no clear right and wrong, no easy answers. And that’s part of what makes this book so genuinely wonderful.

I could resonate with the struggles Daniel has with his birth mother and his adoptive mother (even though I never have and never will meet my birth mother). In many ways, his journey is much harder for me. Mine is all about questions without answers. Daniel is able to get some answers, even though he’ll never really get a sense of closure. Too many times people think of the idea of closure as the ending of this process of working things out – but it’s not. It’s merely another step in this long journey of understanding.

I could hear the ways that adoptive parents, without cruel intent, rationalize adoption or even  perform roles of class, wealth, and 1dt versus 3rd world mentality. I resonated with the problems Daniel felt fitting into either lifestyle, either identity. There was also the subtle racism, the comments that pass by us without noticing until it hits us as an epiphany years later.

The Characters

They were amazing. I absolutely adored that we got to hear Daniel’s mother’s story, Polly. It made the entire novel even more nuanced, complex, and richly satisfying. It’s too often we hear one or the other, if at all, and so by providing a thorough look at both, this novel delivers in a way I have never read about before. Polly herself is just a great character in general because of the ways she struggles with her identity and her identity as a mother.

Part of the book is the complex look at both Daniel’s mother and adoptive parents. It’s the inherent cultural exoticism or the ways in which the adoptive parent’s attempts will never emulate the real experiences. It’s in the way that we perceive said ‘real’ experiences. At the same time, it’s in the ways our friends look at our adoptive identities, and all the ways our culture looks at family (in ways we can never truly or fully participate in).


This is a book that is worth reading. It’s a book worth buying for yourself, your friends, and your family. If you’ve been wondering about adoption it’s a must-read. I cannot praise this book enough and I don’t even have the words to express how much I love it.

You can find a copy of The Leavers on Amazon(US), your local indie, and Goodreads.


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7 thoughts on “Review: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

  1. It’s great that you’ve found yourself well represented within a novel. I’ve never read anything quite like it and it sounds good so I’ll add it to my TBR.

  2. Reading this a lot later, and I’ll definitely pick this one up!! I haven’t seen many books with positive/good adoption representation and one that gets a lot of attention didn’t use the correct language, so I’m happy to see this!!

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