Author: Emily X.R. Pan
Publication date: March 20, 2018
Genre: young adult, contemporary, magical realism, fantasy
My rating: 4/5 stars
In four words, this book is: beautiful, painful, vibrant, and important. I must admit, I had to stay up two hours past when I planned to go to bed in order to finish this one. It wasn’t because it was a page-turner; truly, I wanted to go to sleep and resume it in the morning. But it brought up some really vivid memories and deeply intense feelings of pain and sadness that I thought I was past by now. I needed to get to the end, because I knew I wouldn’t sleep well if I went to bed in that emotional state. It took some processing, and while I expected it to be good, it was even more devastating than I expected a book about a girl and drawing and a magical bird and mental illness and suicide and family and friendship to be.
The blurb for this book does a pretty good job of explaining its premise , so I’ll spare you my awkward attempts at summarizing:
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.
I need to start by saying that this novel was really significant for me on multiple levels. While some elements of it are ones I can’t relate to (racial identity, grief), there were others that were personally very significant parts of my life (depression, inability to help someone who needs it, unrequited love for your best friend, parental pressure to succeed). As such, a lot of my opinions here are inextricably tied to my personal involvement and association with the topics in question, but I do try to make statements about broader importance as well.
The single most powerful, most important, and most painful part of this book was its depiction of depression. Rather than having a main character who is depressed, whose story we see from the inside, the depression in this story is from someone the main character loves and sees every day–her own mother. I struggled with very serious depression for years, but I have also had countless friends fall into its insidious grasp, and I’ve seen both firsthand and secondhand how difficult it can be to understand and help as an outsider. Seeing someone sleeping all the time, too apathetic to get out of bed or even speak to you, is heart-wrenching, even if that pain is only seen through the eyes of a fictional character.
From a social significance standpoint, this book also handles depression exceptionally well. In a note at the end of the book, the author stated that she made a point of making Leigh’s mother’s mental illness one that has no discernible cause, one that has plagued her across her whole life, because so often, that is the form that depression takes. It isn’t always reasonable, or set off by a traumatic event. Sometimes, it just…is. And that has no bearing on how bad it gets or how easy it is to treat, though it can make the stigma worse. Leigh’s mother undergoes all sorts of treatment–therapists, medications, even ECT–and despite everyone’s best efforts, she still ends up succumbing to the siren song of suicide. The candid way Pan addresses both mental illness and suicide is also a huge step toward stigma reduction, particularly toward an audience (teenagers) that faces unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns.
At the risk of sounding incredibly shallow/basic, especially following discussion of such a weighty topic, I also found my heart breaking as Leigh recalled, in installments, her unrequited love for Axel, her best friend. (Again, I’m speaking from personal experience here; I am apparently only able to fall for my closest friends, and I have yet to have those feelings reciprocated. Yaaaayyyy. But I digress.) The conflicting feelings of jealousy and happiness, and the pain of feeling like your spot as a valued friend in their life is being usurped by a romantic partner who clearly isn’t even a good fit for them…it is a very different kind of pain from that of mental illness, and perhaps not as severe, but also no less real. And it does, inevitably, cause a shift in some elements of the friendship that would previously be taken for granted; until a big conversation happens, there is awkwardness and a sense of vague evasion. I was impressed at how well the author could narrate that set of emotions. I wonder if she’s speaking from personal experience.
Finally, a few other very strong points:
– The discussion of racial identity, with Leigh trying to connect with her mother’s culture when their whole side of the family had cut her off, and her struggle with the fact that she is biracial (including facing microaggressions from both white and Chinese people, since she is not wholly one or the other) was resonant and sensitively articulated.
– I am always a fan of casual queer representation, which in this book takes the form of Leigh’s close friend Caro, who is a proud lesbian (with a mother who is totally cool with it, if a little obnoxious at times).
– Speaking of Caro: though Leigh’s family is a bit dysfunctional, both Caro and Axel have really healthy, loving family relationships, without being overly cliched. That’s something you don’t always see in YA, which I appreciated.
– A list of mental health and suicide prevention and crisis intervention resources at the end of the book! So important, especially when the book deals with complex and potentially triggering topics.
– I enjoyed the different forms of art that were present. Leigh likes to draw, Caro is a photographer, and Axel makes music based on his drawings, but all of them take art classes together. It’s a nice variety of techniques that are all centered around a similar goal.
– Speaking of art, the expression of emotions as colors was really cool. Axel and Leigh will often ask each other, “What color?” as a way of sharing their feelings about things. And Pan goes well above and beyond the typical crayon-box set of colors, weaving different tints and shades of emotion into both their conversations and Leigh’s observation of the world around her.
So why didn’t this get a full 5 stars from me? Well…I had a couple complaints. Some are small, like how, in describing her feelings as colors, Leigh often chose to reference specific chemical names for colors, like “methyl blue.” Now, I know my chemistry pretty well, so I could tell you the structure of those molecules, but I have no clue what color they look like. With such a broad set of color names out there in the world, I would have liked to see a less “clinical” set of descriptors. The pacing was also a bit rocky. The start of the book was nice, but it started to drag in the middle, and I must admit that I was kind of bored with it for a while until the ending really kicked into high gear.
But my biggest issue was with the magic of the book. I love fantasy. And I love magical realism. But there is a line between the two that signifies a shift in expectation. In magical realism, the fantastical can be written off as simply something that happens and then is gone. The magic is there, but it doesn’t usually last long, and we can suspend our disbelief when it shows up. In fantasy, though, magic needs to have rules. It needs explanations or reasons. This story leaned more heavily toward fantasy, in my opinion, with magical incense and views of others’ memories and a magical bird and ghosts and one other big element at the end that I won’t reveal because…spoilers…but the point is, there is a LOT of magic. And yet none of it is explained. It isn’t rational; it just kind of all happens and then goes away at the end of the book, without any explanation (including a piece that has literally nothing to do with Leigh or her mother, which is even weirder for magic to intervene with, given the thematic consistency of the rest). Genre-bending is difficult, and I don’t think it was executed quite right in this case.
All in all, this was a poignant and highly worthwhile read. Though there were a few narrative elements that I disagreed with, their weakness is outweighed by the depth of emotion, important themes, and vibrant imagery of the book. I won’t lie: it’s an emotionally taxing story, and if you’re not in a great mental state, I might recommend holding off on it until you’re in a better place. But when you’re ready, go ahead and let it enfold you in its breathtaking beauty. You’ll come out feeling drained, but also so very alive.
TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNINGS: depression, suicide, grief, death of a family member, microaggressions