Bookshots: 'Kinder than Solitude' by Yiyun Li

Bookshots: 'Kinder than Solitude' by Yiyun Li

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Kinder than Solitude

Who wrote it?

The wordcraft is breathtaking; it's...gorgeous... But what does it actually mean? And is it true?

Yiyun Li, MacArthur Fellow and PEN/Hemingway Award-winner

Plot in a Box:

Alternating between past and present, China and America, an omniscient narrator traces the lives of three childhood friends.

Invent a new title for this book:

The Tang Dynasty – the orange powder enjoyed by astronauts plays a key role in the story

Read this if you liked:

Bleak House, Jude the Obscure, Heavier than Heavy: A Biography of Kurt Kobain

Meet the book’s lead:

Ruyu, a grim child sent to Beijing by her grandaunts.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Christina Ricci circa The Addams Family.

Setting: would you want to live there?

Not on your life. It’s a world devoid of beauty.

What was your favorite sentence?

Can't say I found one.

The Verdict:

Relentlessly dreary from beginning to end, Kinder than Solitude presents the world as a dusty repository of heartless, futile hostility. This brittle despair might be right up my alley, but the author, Yiyun Li, offers ornate craft in place of meaning.

Ruyu and her two friends, Moran and Boyang, grow from peculiar little children into standard-issue disaffected adults. Their world is loveless, their hearts empty. Even the poisoning at the novel’s core is devoid of passion. But this arid depression isn't the problem. The overly crafted prose is itself a void. The book reads as though it's grave and profound, but the wisdom is a fraud. 

The author is forever offering grandiose pronouncements to illustrate the details of her characters’ thoughts and feelings.

“When we place our beloved in front of the critical eyes of others, we feel diminished along with the subject being scrutinized.”

Oh, really? This ostentatious insight illustrates a young girl’s love of old Beijing and her anxiety about introducing it to her new friend. But is it true? The expansion of one particular character’s fleeting thought into a universal truth applicable to all of humanity serves only to unmask the sagacity as pretension. 

“But in not giving something a proper name, even in one’s most private thoughts, one makes the mistake of including too much; a childhood friendship, a first love, companionship – all these, confined by their names, would, in touching one part of the heart, spare other, unexposed parts.”

The wordcraft is breathtaking; it's a gorgeous sentence. But what does it actually mean? And is it true?

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Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast March 3, 2014 - 6:40am

You know Ed, this sounds like my reaction on reading Norwegian Wood by Murakami. Something along the lines of 'when does all the introspection stop and the fun begin?' I don't know if all authors with eastern asian origins write as if their pysche is drenched in gloom, or whether those selecting books from this part of the world for a Western audience believe that's what we expect/want, but that's what we get anyway.

I think it's time some Japanese light romantic comedy or biting Chinese satire hit the bookstands.


edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 3, 2014 - 8:42am

I don't know anything about Asian-American lit, so I couldn't see a trend even if I wanted to. I just know that this book was terribly disappointing.