Friday, February 21, 2014

Return to Me, by Justina Chen

Rebecca is on the verge of starting her freshman year at Columbia, studying architecture.  She has a premonition that things are not going to go well.  And there are certainly issues:  her father has landed a new job in New York and the family is literally following her out east, leaving their beloved island home outside Seattle.  Meanwhile, Rebecca has to say goodbye to her boyfriend and ponder the viability of a long-distance relationship.

But then, her father drops a bombshell on the whole family:  he's leaving their mother and shacking up with a new woman.  Moreover, he's been carrying on a secret affair for the past several months.  His revelation and decision to dessert the family plunges all of them into crisis, as they deal with their grieving, anger, and eventual acceptance.  It also leads Rebecca to revisit her plans and reconsider what she really wants to do with her life.

Justina Chen writes novels full of lots of layers and meanings.  Here it seems a bit more aimless than previous books like North of Beautiful.  While some key concepts, like the meaning of architecture and Rebecca's love for tree houses, are integral to the story, there's a whole thread about Rebecca and her maternal relatives being clairvoyant which hangs awkwardly.  I have bigger issues with Chen's depiction of male characters, which are strikingly flat in comparison with the women.  The father is a glaring example, being at best shallow and seeming like a caricature.  For a story with so much insight on grieving and healing from a feminine perspective, Chen struggles with her male characters.  Rebecca's brother is a throwaway character and Rebecca's boyfriend seems to serve no further purpose than to be endlessly understanding.

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