My Year Abroad {book review}

I was able to read My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee via Net Galley and Penguin Group Riverhead.

My Year Abroad is a very highly anticipated novel and there’s been a lot of press about the book so far. The story unfolds as Tiller, a male in his early 20s, describes his current living situation and briefly how he came to live with Val (a 30-something mother) and her son Victor Jr. in a town Tiller refers to as Stagno. We quickly get the gist that they’ve encountered some hardships prior to their chance meeting at the airport cafeteria in Hong Kong. We get snippets of Val’s backstory: her mobster husband, and their current stint in witness protection that landed them in Stagno. We learn of their daily life and what happens as they expand their horizons past their bubble. (These chapters felt oddly familiar. The unprecedented events of 2020 that have left this reader knowledgeable in the feeling of being trapped at home and only able to slowly test the waters with different activities which meet certain thresholds of comfort.) As Val, Tiller and Victor Jr. test their boundaries, their comfort levels increase and for a while they experience suburban life to the max and readers are taken on an amazing gastronomical tour with Victor Jr as their guide.

The other half of the story, is spent unpacking how Tiller left his boring un-aspirational college student life in Dunbar to the present day. The prelude to his Stagno life, is an interesting roller coaster that takes Tiller from Dunbar to Asian locales (in a weirdly Crazy Rich Asians tangent/stereotype) with Pong Lou as his guide and guru. Everything Pong (a chemist by trade and entrepreneur the rest of the time) touches seems to turn into profit and he hopes that Tiller can help him market and promote his newest creation, Exilirent (a life changing almost personalized elixir) to different markets in Asia.

Chang-rae Lee’s writing is exquisite. The novel is also not just about the beauty and dangers abroad, but also the beauty and dangers in suburban life. Lee is able to articulate what it feels like to be Asian American to a certain percentage as well as the desire to belong. The lush tropical environments, scenery, and settings are painted beautifully with such detail. The food, festivities, and the intricacies of dining and group dynamics play a big role for both storylines. And on the flip side, the gruesome experiences Tiller endured while in Asia were also painted in both fine detail and broad strokes. There were portions of this story that were excruciating. Lee does an amazing job of creating that sense of foreboding, the reader knows something awful has happened to Tiller but when does it happen? And when something awful does happen, there’s a feeling that there’s more to follow.

Overall, while there were some sections that I couldn’t take, I still couldn’t put the novel down. Like Tiller, I survived.

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