The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan (472 pages)
Overview: Leigh's mother dies by suicide. The image haunts her mind. She and her father grapple for why as the grief sets in. All that she left behind are crossed out lines, an attempt at a note, and one mentions wanting her to remember. Remember what, Leigh doesn't know. But when a giant, red bird that must be the next incarnation of her mother delivers a package full of relics from her mom's family in Taiwan, she knows that she has to go visit them. Her father, an scholar in East Asian studies, arranges a trip for her to meet her grandparents for the first time, and, despite the language barrier, Leigh begins to connect with her mother's parents and heritage all while trying to piece together what her mother is trying to communicate before time runs out. Overall: 4
Characters: 4 Leigh sees and communicates with the world with colors. Emotions are not happy or sad but parrot green and magenta. The other senses have colors as well, and that's always been her secret language with her best friend, Axel, a fellow artist. Leigh struggles with a feeling of responsibility for her mom's death because she wasn't with her when it happened. She struggles with breaking with her dad's wishes and becoming an artist, and she struggles with the fact that her best friend, and secret crush, is on again off again with a different girl. That fades, though, in comparison to her grief.
Her parents are probably the best part of the novel, and it is as much their story as Leigh's. Her mother moved from Taiwan to the United States for a music intensive program where she met Leigh's father Brain who wasn't Taiwanese or Asian at all despite having studied the culture in his degree and career. Her parents try to disown her and force her into leaving Leigh's father, but she rebells and cuts off contact with her parents even when they ask for forgiveness. Leigh's mother, Dory, battled depression throughout her life and proves resistant to treatments despite how hard they try to find a solution. Leigh is never quite sure, though, where exactly her mother's mental health stands because it is not discussed, even though she becomes her mother's only support system with her dad's constant travel. Losing her mother would be horrible regardless, but, in many ways, she was Leigh's only parent. Her father was always gone, and, when he was home, he spent most of his time criticizing her artistic aspirations. It was beautiful to watch their relationship morph in the face of their incredible, yet nearly independent, losses.
Plot: 4 While I love the narrative of her going to Taiwan on a journey of discovery, the pacing was a bit slowed by so many scenes that followed the same pattern of her coming out of memories or trace like episodes. I liked the short chapters and the unspooling of her past, and, at maybe 100 pages shorter, I would have given the book five stars. It was amazing to see her connect with the other half of her culture, the other half of her family and find things to help her cope with her grief.
Writing: Pan's writing is poetic and filled with color. She lets emotion and description fill the pages for an immersive experience. I like the unique way that she revealed Leigh's character. What was confusing, though, was the bird and other elements of the story that are later revealed to be different than Leigh perceives. At times throughout the book, I was pretty sure Pan was writing Leigh's story of a struggle with schizophrenia and the fantastical things she saw were products of hallucinations, but then the way that others in the story interacted with the hallucinatory elements made me question if she meant it to be interpreted as a bit of a fantasy/paranormal type thing with her mother's ghost influencing and facilitating the happenings. Seeing the things that happen toward the end of the book, I'm beginning to believe more the latter, but there's nothing terribly concrete that Pan leaves the reader to know. I'm a fan of ambiguity, but I would have liked more of an acknowledgement one way or another.