If you think about the families in this story, the plot and its twists, or even the unlikely title for this book, you might wonder how in the world it fits together.
And yet it does. Remarkably well.
It is a story of unlikely attractions, where they lead, their consequences and how they shape lives. The characters are a bit offbeat and yet, you are mesmerized by the burdens they carry.
Although not an easy read, it is compelling in the way it finds an original way to tell a story of grief and redemption. Despite their flaws and the choices these characters make, they are interesting, believable and empathetic.
Relegation Books. 2016 279 pages
Two unrelated Lee families, one biracial and the other Korean, live in Washington D.C. in the 1980s and 90s. It is a time fraught with racial and ethnic bias.
When he was a young soldier in Korea, African American Charles Lee meets Alice, a white woman, who finished a stint in the Peace Corps and stayed on to avoid medical school.When Alice becomes pregnant, Charles marries her with the intention of becoming a devoted, loving family man who tries to care for his family in a way his own father didn’t.
The book opens with a prologue of the ambivalence of Charles’ father when he had a decision to make. It lets you know what you are in for — and the trip won’t be easy.
1951, Kenyon Street, Washington DC.
And Frank saw—he saw everything then. The boy was his for sure. If he’d doubted, now he knew. Charles, they were calling him, but he didn’t know it—not then, not for a long time. There was an instant, if it was that long: the shoulds, the rights, the wrongs flitted in and out of his mind like dumb brown moths flapping at a light bulb. He shut the light. No. Don’t want. Want other, want out, out there. Got plans. Not here, this, them.
Feet no longer lead. Feet flying down the steps, onto the black street. Flying, flying away, into the night—to life, unlived, calling.
When their two children, Benny and Veda are school age, Alice returns to work at a Korean nursing home. She still can speak some of the language from her Peace Corps days. It is there that she meets an immigrant Korean nurse, Soon Mi Lee, and hires her independent, extremely responsible thirteen year old daughter, Hannah, to babysit after school.
Mature beyond her years in how she assumes responsibility, Hannah takes on critical role in the other Lee family. The children love her, of course, but interestingly, Hannah and Charles, who does not understand his wife, form an unlikely relationship. One you may think will go places you don’t want it to. But doesn’t. It is intimate yet never crosses the line.
The story turns when they take Hannah on vacation to help with the children (Alice struggles with her role as mother) and there is a terrible accident.
Sonya Chung, author
When first introduced, Hannah’s parents, Chong Ho and Soon-Mi appear strange. They are devoid of any of the traits needed for parenting. They are emotionally paralyzed and constrained in their thinking. You know something is wrong but at first there is little to clue the reader in. The backstory of their life in Korea, how they met, and what transpired from their deep love and flight to America is both unexpected and unnerving. A real bend in the road.
This is not a sentimental journey. The intersection of the two families are needed for each to untangle their complicated histories and move forward to start living their own lives.
Interestingly, the novel is divided into two books, Les Proches (family or kin) and Les Bien-Amies (the loved ones). This distinction is one we might all heed.