Author: Yiyun Li
Rating: 4 stars
I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
In Beijing, a woman dies 20 years after being destroyed by poison. The death, 20 years too late, and the poisoning, are the central events in the lives of three former friends torn apart emotionally and geographically by their young actions.
Going in to Kinder Than Solitude, I initially thought that the focus of the novel would be the mystery behind the half-murder. I was wrong. The actual facts of the poisoning are slow to fully unravel, but fairly easy to deduce early on. No, what the novel is really about is the three characters, Boyang, Moran, and Ruyu, as they each strive towards some sense of redemption and absolution from the actions of their past.
Boyang, the most outwardly successful of the three and the only one to stay in China, is also the most trapped by circumstance. He cares, halfheartedly, for the ailing Shaoai, unbeknownst to the other people in his life. He had the least responsibility for the poisoning, yet he can’t break his connection to her family, and assumes responsibility for her cremation and informing the others of her death. In his real life, he goes through a series of perfunctory relationships, eventually trying and failing to connect with a young woman who reminds him of his first love. Moran, living in America, has spent years denying herself a place in other people’s hearts, wrestling with guilt and feeling unworthy of love. Yet the news from China spurs her on to reconnecting with her ex-husband. And Ruyu, the unfeeling orphan who had been inserted into Boyang and Moran’s lives twenty years before and caused so much trouble, tries to come to terms with what she did and why.
In restrained, gorgeous prose, Li traces the arcs of these three characters and brings quiet corners of Beijing in the late eightes to life. None of the three are particularly likeable, and yet I love them, and found them fascinating. My only small complaint with the story was that the dialogue of the white suburban couple in Ruyu’s life in California felt really fake. But it was a rare misstep in this lovely novel.