The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on March 20, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Fantasy, Fiction, Magical Realism, Young Adult
Length: 462 pages Source: Amazon
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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.
It took a while to get into The Astonishing Color of After, but once I did, it positively gripped my heart.
Leigh feels like the sort of character who is forever trudging through a muddy swamp, trying to navigate her own emotions while living in a shadow of fear and resentment. She’s afraid for her mother, and trying to prove herself to her father, while entirely not knowing what to feel about her friend Axel. When her mother kills herself, everything falls apart. The stain won’t go away.
Then, she sees the bird. And she knows, knows, it is her mother.
What I like about the magical realism aspects about this book was the hesitation. Leigh sees the bird, but nobody else believes her. Her father suggests she switches therapists, and her grandmother looks at her without understanding. Only Feng sees her mother, too, and Leigh doesn’t like the way Feng walks around and asks like she knows everything about Leigh’s family. The family Leigh has just rediscovered.
Things I did not expect from this book:
- I did not expect to fall in love with Taiwan. Everything Emily X. R. Pan describes is breathtaking.
- I did not expect a love story. Really, I though the whole thing was going to be about grief and healing. And it is about healing – sometimes, you just need to healing the awkward space between two people.
- I did not expect a ghost story. It’s not the type of ghost story you’re thinking of – no gore or possessions or Slimer. But there’s a ghost and it’s a story and I loved this part almost best.
- I did not expect a sibling story. It is small and tucked into the smoke and memories sections, but the sibling story is really and truly beautiful and that was my favorite aspect of the book.
The route to Leigh’s healing is filled with very real anger and desperation, and it was beautiful and sad. At times, it was even painful to know that I was standing on the outside and this was a book and there was nothing I could do to help her.
I went into this book knowing so little about it, and I don’t want to give away any of the sights or foods or moments scribed inside of it, because I want everyone else to have the same experience I had of unwrapping this novel like a carefully packaged gift. Emily X. R. Pan’s writing is beautiful and emotive. There’s feeling and color in every word.
I also want to outline that this is #OwnVoices. There’s very little Taiwanese (even half-Taiwanese) rep out there, especially in YA and while I can’t speak to the experience, there were moments tied in that I appreciated so much. Like when Leigh calls out someone for calling her exotic. Things that are laid casually into our daily lives that are not okay.
With moments that span across two cultures and through several generations, The Astonishing Color of After will engulf you. Once I passed the halfway point, I couldn’t put it down. I needed to know that Leigh was going to be okay, and I found myself hugging the novel after I finished it. It’s precious and sad, so sad. But you must read it.
The Astonishing Color of After stays on my shelf.
My usual reasoning for picking up a book is because I want to revisit it – I want to delve deeper in its pages and unlock its secrets. It’s different for The Astonishing Color of After. For this one, I won’t re-read it often. It’s exhausting and as I mentioned several times – it’s sad. But it’s also inspirational and dark beautiful and I need to have it in my collection? Have you ever read a book like that – one that pulled at your heart that you feel better for knowing you have close?
I’m strange, I know.