By Chet Yarbrough
My Year Abroad
By: Chang-Rae Lee
Narrated by : Lawrence Kao
Chang-Rae Lee (Author).
As a first exposure to Chang-Rae Lee, “My Year Abroad” is disappointing. Lee is an accomplished novelist with many awards, but this latest book is long, and in too many places, ponderous.
In some sense “My Year Abroad” is a stereotypical story of an Asian immigrant capturing the American dream by working hard. It outlines the life of a person who is industrious and intelligent who works in a restaurant while earning a college degree in chemistry. Somehow, this immigrant’s success becomes tainted in using his education to delude himself and others to believe in immortality. The idea of a chemical formula to extends one’s life seems to trigger a greed that destroys rather than preserves lives.
Lee’s fictional story reminds one of Elizabeth Holms and her belief in the blood test technology of Theranos. The only question being–does motive come from self-delusion or greed?
Lee shows an industrious young man who games the American immigration system to stay in New Jersey past the date of his limited visa. A large part of his story reflects on the success of an immigrant who flimflams fellow investors into a scheme to sell an elixir to cure death. This is not the first time an American has bilked the public which is why Lee’s story loses its way.
Lee puts aside, rather than explains, the poorly managed and unfair American immigration system that shuts out an important part of America’s prosperity.
What keeps one interested in Lee’s story is Tiller, a young boy who gets caught up in the elixir fraud. Tiller enters the story by helping a mother and her son in a chance meeting at the airport. The mother has been put in a witness protection program. She testifies to the illegal activity of her husband who is pursued by the American government. This introduces the threat of discovery by her husband’s associates who might kill her.
Her savior is Tiller who comes from a broken family. His mother left her family early in Tiller’s life. He does not know what happened to her. Tiller misses her presence.
Tiller has a telephone relationship with his father who is a professor who supports him while he works in a restaurant as a dishwasher while going to college. Tiller is a teenager, nearing 20, when he meets the witness protection mother and her son. They begin a troubled life together. The trouble is multifaceted based on age differences, guilt of the mother for having ratted on her husband, and a son bereft of a father, showing behavioral problems.
To some reader/listeners this is a lot to accept as credible. Lee manages to keep the story together with the endearing qualities of Tiller. Tiller deals with life as it happens. He is industrious and has an inner compass that guides him through whatever circumstances life presents. One admires Tiller’s grasp of the circumstances of the mother and her son. Tiller makes their lives better. One grows to care about Tiller, the troubled mother, and the son who needs help in coping with life.
Many of the things that happen to Tiller fail to suspend disbelief. This is a long story without the qualities of good fiction. One comes away from the story in disappointment with an author who is obviously gifted.