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A Novel

Written by Yiyun LiAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Yiyun Li

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On Sale: February 25, 2014
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-8129-9602-9
Published by : Random House Trade Paperbacks Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A profound mystery is at the heart of this magnificent new novel by Yiyun Li, “one of America’s best young novelists” (Newsweek) and the celebrated author of The Vagrants, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Moving back and forth in time, between America today and China in the 1990s, Kinder Than Solitude is the story of three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed. As one of the three observes, “Even the most innocent person, when cornered, is capable of a heartless crime.”
 
When Moran, Ruyu, and Boyang were young, they were involved in a mysterious “accident” in which a friend of theirs was poisoned. Grown up, the three friends are separated by distance and personal estrangement. Moran and Ruyu live in the United States, Boyang in China; all three are haunted by what really happened in their youth, and by doubt about themselves. In California, Ruyu helps a local woman care for her family and home, and avoids entanglements, as she has done all her life. In Wisconsin, Moran visits her ex-husband, whose kindness once overcame her flight into solitude. In Beijing, Boyang struggles to deal with an inability to love, and with the outcome of what happened among the three friends twenty years ago.
 
Brilliantly written, a breathtaking page-turner, Kinder Than Solitude resonates with provocative observations about human nature and life. In mesmerizing prose, and with profound insight, Yiyun Li unfolds this remarkable story, even as she explores the impact of personality and the past on the shape of a person’s present and future.

Praise for Kinder Than Solitude
 
“Profound . . . an intricately plotted mystery.”The New Yorker
 
“[A] sleek, powerful novel about the weight of memory, the brunt of loss and the myriad ways the past can crimp the soul . . . [Yiyun] Li gives us gifts of gorgeous prose. . . . Rarely are ordinary humans given such eloquent witness.”The Washington Post
 
“What makes [Kinder Than Solitude] so vivid is its humanity. . . . It is an inquiry into how the past scars us, shaping present and future, and some deeds, once committed, can never be undone.”Los Angeles Times
 
“With her characteristically nimble hand, Li sketches the daily contours of this little enclave, her cast rich with supporting characters and a talent for conjuring a life with just a few lines of description.”San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Quietly heartbreaking . . . [Li’s] true gift—learned by close study of Ivan Turgenev and William Trevor—is old-fashioned storytelling [and] a sense that a life, a whole life, can be captured on pages.”The Boston Globe

“The surface of Yiyun Li’s prose is deceptively still, but just beneath the surface are the sadness, pain, and tragedy of three lives, each one driven into a kind of damaged solitude by the memory of the past. Li’s characters are portrayed with a harsh beauty, and one’s emotions become deeply engaged with their fates, and with the mystery of a poisoned woman, a crime which has shaped—perhaps deformed—them all. This is an exceptional novel, and Yiyun Li has grown into one of our major novelists.”—Salman Rushdie

“Yiyun Li has such an authentic voice, and she is not afraid of cutting to the bone to get to the truth of relationships and emotions. I believe Kinder Than Solitude is her best novel yet.”—Lisa See

Excerpt

1

Boyang had thought grief would make people less commonplace. The waiting room at the crematory, however, did not differentiate itself from elsewhere: the eagerness to be served first and the suspicion that others had snatched a better deal were reminiscent of the marketplace or stock exchange. A man shouldered him, reaching for multiple copies of the same form. Surely you have only one body to burn, Boyang laughed to himself, and the man glared back, as though personal loss had granted him the right to what he was not owed by the world.

A woman in black rushed in and looked around for a white chrysanthemum that must have been dropped earlier. The clerk, an old man, watched her pin it back onto her collar and smiled at Boyang. “You wonder why they can’t slow down,” he said when Boyang expressed sympathy for what the clerk had to endure. “Day in and day out. These people forget that those who rush to every sweet fruit of life rush to death, too.”

Boyang wondered if the clerk—whom no one wished to meet and, once met, became part of an unwelcome memory—found so­lace in those words; perhaps he found joy, too, in knowing that those who mistreated him would return in a colder form. The thought made Boyang like him.

When the older man finished his tea, they went over the paperwork for Shaoai’s cremation: her death certificate, the cause of death lung failure after acute pneumonia; the yellowed residence registration card with an official cancellation stamp; her citizen’s ID. The clerk checked the paperwork, including Boyang’s ID, carefully, his pencil making tiny dots under the numbers and dates Boyang had entered. He wondered if the clerk noticed that Shaoai was six years older. “A relative?” the clerk asked when he looked up.

“A friend,” Boyang said, imagining disappointment in the old man’s eyes because Boyang was not a new widower at thirty-seven. He added that Shaoai had been ill for twenty-one years.

“Good that things come to an end.”

There was no option but to agree with the old man’s comfortless words. Boyang was glad that he had dissuaded Aunt, Shaoai’s mother, from coming to the crematory. He would have been unable to guard her from strangers’ goodwill and malevolence alike, and he would have been embarrassed by her grief.

The clerk told Boyang to come back in two hours, and he walked out to the Garden of Perpetual Green. Shaoai would have scoffed at the cypresses and pine trees—symbols of everlasting youth at a crematory. She would have mocked her mother’s sorrow and Boyang’s pensiveness, even her own inglorious end. She, of all people, would have made good use of a life. Her distaste for the timid, the dull, and the ordinary, her unforgiving sharpness: what a waste that edge had rusted, Boyang thought again. The decaying that had dragged on for too long had only turned tragedy into nuisance; death, when it strikes, better completes its annihilating act on the first try.

At the top of a hill, older trees guarded elaborate mausoleums. A few birds—crows and magpies—prattled close enough that Boyang could hit them with a pinecone, but he would need an audience for such a boyish achievement. If Coco were here, she would know how to poke fun at his shot and to look impressed when he showed her the pine nuts inside the cones, though the truth was she had little interest in these things. Coco was twenty-one, yet already she had acquired the incuriosity of one who has lived long enough; her desire—too greedy for her age, or too meager—was for tangible comforts and material possessions.

At the end of a path a pavilion sheltered the bronze bust of a man. Boyang tapped the pillars. They were sturdy enough, though the wood was not the best quality, and the paint had faded and was peeling in places; according to the plaque the pavilion was less than two years old. A bouquet of plastic lilies laid underneath looked more dead than fake. Time, since the economy had taken off, seemed to move at an unreal pace in China, the new becoming old fast, the old vanishing into oblivion. One day he, too, could afford—if he desired it—to be turned into a stone or metal bust, gaining a minor immortality for people to laugh at. With a bit of luck, Coco, or whatever woman replaced Coco, might shed a tear or two in front of his grave—if not for a world without him, then for her misspent youth.

A woman appeared over the rise of the hill, and upon seeing Bo­yang turned so abruptly he barely glimpsed her face, framed by a black-and-white patterned scarf. He studied her black coat and the designer bag on her arm, and wondered if she was a rich man’s widow, or better, a mistress. For a moment he entertained the thought of catching up with her and exchanging a few words. If they liked each other, they could stop at a village on the drive back to the city and choose a clean countryside restaurant for some rustic flavors: sweet potatoes roasted in a tall metal barrel, chicken stewed with so-called “locally grown, organic” mushrooms, a few sips of strong yam liquor that would make their stories flow more easily and the lunch worth prolonging. Back in the city, they might or might not, depending on their moods, see each other again.

Boyang returned to the counter at the designated time. The clerk informed him that there would be a slight delay, as one family had insisted on checking everything to avoid contamination. Contamination with someone else’s ashes? Boyang asked, and the old man smiled and said that if there was any place where people’s whims would be accommodated, it was this one. Touchy business, Boyang said, and then asked if a woman had come alone to cremate someone.

“A woman?” the clerk said.

Boyang considered describing the woman to the old man, but then decided that a man with a trustworthy face and gentle sense of humor should be dealt with cautiously. He changed the subject and chatted about the new city regulations on real estate. Later, when the clerk asked him if he would like to take a look at Shaoai’s remains before they were ground to ashes—some families requested that, explained the clerk; some asked to pick up the bones themselves for proper closure—Boyang declined the offer.

That everything had come to an end like this was a relief as unconvincing as the pale sun that graced the dashboard as Boyang drove back to the city. The news of the death he had emailed to Moran and Ruyu. Moran, he knew, lived in America, though where Ruyu was he was not certain: America most probably; perhaps Canada, or Australia, or somewhere in Europe. He doubted that the two of them had remained in touch with each other; his own communications with them had never once been acknowledged. On the first of every month, he sent separate emails, informing—reminding—them that Shaoai was alive. He never spoke of the emergencies, lung failure once, and heart failure a few times: to limit the information would spare him the expectation of a reply. Shaoai had always pulled through, clinging to a world that had neither use nor a place for her, and the brief messages he sent had given him a sense of permanency. Loyalty to the past is the foundation of a life one does not, by happenstance or by will, end up living. His persistence had preserved that untouched alternative. Their silence, he believed, proved that to be the case: silence maintained so emphatically could only mean their loyalties matched his, too.

When the doctor confirmed Shaoai’s death, Boyang had felt neither grief nor relief but anger—anger at being proven wrong, at being denied the reunion that he had considered his right: they—he and Moran and Ruyu—were old in his fantasy, ancient even, a man and two women who had nearly lived out their mortal lives, converging one last time at the lake of their youth. Moran and Ruyu would perhaps consider their homecoming a natural, if not triumphant, epitaph. To this celebration he would bring Shaoai, whose presence would turn their decades of accumulation—marriage, children, career, wealth—into a hoarder’s laughable collection. The best life is the life unlived, and Shaoai would be the only one to have a claim to that truth.

Yet their foolishness was his, too, and to laugh at his own absurdity he needed the other two: laughing by oneself is more intolerable than mourning alone. They might not have seen the death notice in their emails—after all, it was only the middle of the month. Boyang knew, by intuition, that the email addresses he had from Moran and Ruyu were not the ones they used every day, as his, used only for communicating with them, was not. That Shaoai had died on him when he had least expected her to, and that neither Moran nor Ruyu had acknowledged his email, made the death unreal, as though he were rehearsing alone for something he needed the other two women—no, all three of them—to be part of; Shaoai, too, had to be present at her own funeral.

A silver Porsche overtook Boyang on the highway, and he wondered if the driver was the woman he had seen in the cemetery. His cell phone vibrated, but he did not unhook it from his belt. He had canceled his appointments for the day, and the call most probably was from Coco. As a rule he kept his whereabouts vague to Coco, so she had to call him, and had to be prepared for last-minute changes. To keep her on uncertain footing gave him the pleasure of being in control. Sugar daddy—she and her friends must have used that imported term behind his back, but once when he, half-drunk, had asked Coco if that was what she took him for, she laughed and said he was too young for that. Sugar brother, she said afterward on the phone with a girlfriend, winking at him, and later he’d thanked her for her generosity.

It took him a few passes to find a parking spot at the apartment complex, built long before cars were a part of the lives of its occupants. A man who was cleaning the windshield of a small car—made in China from the look of it—cast an unfriendly look at Boyang as he exited his car. Would the man, Boyang wondered while locking eyes with the stranger sternly, leave a scratch on his BMW, or at least kick its tire or bumper, when he was out of sight? Such conjecture about other people no doubt reflected his own ignobleness, but a man must not let his imagination be outwitted by the world. Boyang took pride in his contempt for other people and himself alike. This world, like many people in it, inevitably treats a man better when he has little kindness to spare for it.

Before he unlocked the apartment door with his copy of the key, Aunt opened it from inside. She must have been crying, her eyelids red and swollen, but she acted busy, almost cheerful, brewing tea that Boyang had said he did not need, pushing a plate of pistachios at him, and asking about the health of his parents.

Boyang wished he had never known this one-bedroom unit, which, already shabby when Aunt and Uncle had moved into it with Shaoai, had not changed much in the past twenty years. The furniture was old, from the ’60s and ’70s, cheap wooden tables and chairs and iron bed frames that had long lost their original shine. The only addition was a used metal walker, bought inexpensively from the hospital where Aunt used to work as a nurse before retiring. Boyang had helped Uncle to saw off its wheels, readjust its height, and then secure it to a wall. Three times a day Shaoai had been helped onto it and practiced standing by herself so that her muscles retained some strength.

The old sheets wrapped around the armrests had worn out over the years, the sky-blue paint badly chipped and exposing the dirty metal beneath. Never, Boyang thought, would he again have to coax Shaoai to practice standing with a piece of candy, yet was this world without her a better place for him? Like a river taking a detour, time that had passed elsewhere had left the apartment and its occupants behind, their lives and deaths fossils of an inconsequential past. Bo­yang’s own parents had purchased four properties in the last decade, each one bigger than the previous one; their current home was a two-story townhouse they never tired of inviting friends to, for viewings of their marble bathtub and crystal chandelier imported from Italy and their shiny appliances from Germany. Boyang had overseen the remodeling of all four places, and he managed the three they rented out. He himself had three apartments in Beijing; the first, purchased for his marriage, he had bestowed upon his ex-wife as a punishing gesture of largesse when the man she had betrayed Boyang for had not divorced his own wife as he had promised.
Yiyun Li

About Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li - Kinder Than Solitude

Photo © Jynelle A. Gracia

Yiyun Li is the author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants. A native of Beijing and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the recipient of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Guardian First Book Award. In 2007, Granta named her one of the best American novelists under thirty-five. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, among others. She teaches writing at the University of California, Davis, and lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their two sons.
Praise

Praise

“Li turns an intricately plotted mystery into something more profound, one that queries the meaning of crime and punishment in the moral murk of contemporary China.”The New Yorker
 
“[A] sleek, powerful novel about the weight of memory, the brunt of loss and the myriad ways the past can crimp the soul . . . [Yiyun] Li gives us gifts of gorgeous prose. . . . Rarely are ordinary humans given such eloquent witness.”The Washington Post

“What makes [Kinder Than Solitude] so vivid is its humanity. . . . It is an inquiry into how the past scars us, shaping present and future, and some deeds, once committed, can never be undone.”Los Angeles Times
 
“With her characteristically nimble hand, Li sketches the daily contours of this little enclave, her cast rich with supporting characters and a talent for conjuring a life with just a few lines of description.”San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Quietly heartbreaking . . . [Li’s] true gift—learned by close study of Ivan Turgenev and William Trevor—is old-fashioned storytelling [and] a sense that a life, a whole life, can be captured on pages.”The Boston Globe

“The surface of Yiyun Li’s prose is deceptively still, but just beneath the surface are the sadness, pain, and tragedy of three lives, each one driven into a kind of damaged solitude by the memory of the past. Li’s characters are portrayed with a harsh beauty, and one’s emotions become deeply engaged with their fates, and with the mystery of a poisoned woman, a crime which has shaped—perhaps deformed—them all. This is an exceptional novel, and Yiyun Li has grown into one of our major novelists.”—Salman Rushdie

“Yiyun Li has such an authentic voice, and she is not afraid of cutting to the bone to get to the truth of relationships and emotions. I believe Kinder Than Solitude is her best novel yet.”—Lisa See

“There’s something about the poise, the tidiness, the seemingly effortless calm of Yiyun Li’s writing that makes it easy to see her as an author who, like Jhumpa Lahiri, employs a Chekovian neutrality. . . . But look again. . . . There’s a withering, vibrating sarcasm at work in the juxtaposition of national and personal tragedies.”The New York Times Book Review
 
“Li is something of a connoisseur of loneliness and despondency—in this she is reminiscent of the . . . bard of solitude, William Trevor—and her book is rich in such elegant, fine-grained expressions of despair.”The Wall Street Journal
 
“Despite its status as a sort of whodunit, Kinder Than Solitude is often most interesting for the things it is not: not a political novel, notwithstanding the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square massacre; not a novel that takes up the tropes of immigrant fiction, despite being fiction about immigrants. But its force comes from the mythic power of the childhood story, the almost-book-within-the-book, as the ‘vacuum’ force of Ruyu destabilizes life in the quadrangle with the inevitability of the serpent in the garden. . . . The people in Li’s novels . . . push at the boundaries of our empathy. . . . [Kinder Than Solitude] questions the purpose of guilt, and in turning aside our conditioned expectations encourages us to extend the borders of our compassion.”Slate
 
“Stellar . . . [Li’s] understated writing . . . excels at revealing our more intimate internal anxieties. She’s a master at capturing emotional disconnection, and how oblivious we can be to it. . . . Like more subtle storytellers (Alice McDermott and William Trevor come readily to mind), Li uses a plain-spoken style to reveal layers upon layers of psychological drama. Few writers are better at showing just how much chaos lies beneath our efforts to project an outer calm.”Newsday
 
“Haunting . . . beautifully written . . . a moving meditation . . . Li, a native of Beijing who lives in Oakland, creates a potent atmosphere of mystery around Shaoai’s death. Yet even as she resolves its lingering questions, the author suggests that innocence lost can never be regained.”San Jose Mercury News
 
“Curiosity to unravel this ‘whodunit’ is just enough, under the spell of Li’s skilled storytelling, to pull us into the lives of these three and keep us there. . . . The book’s real mystery of poisoning is not so much that of the young woman whose vegetative survival haunts their lives, as the poisoning of the innocence of the three teens.”Iowa City Press-Citizen
 
“Mesmerizing . . . perceptive . . . Gorgeous prose graces every page.”Bookreporter
 
“A masterpiece . . . beautifully poetic . . . [Li expresses] new ideas in word combinations that are unexpected, so you have to reread them to understand exactly what they mean. . . . This is novelty carried on at the highest level, where experiences most of us have had in some form or other have been re-examined and re-described in ways that make them new.”The Threepenny Review
 
“[Li] embroiders Kinder Than Solitude . . . with a kind of menacing grace that transcends the thriller at the book’s core. . . . Part coming-of-age tale, part heartbreaking whodunit, Kinder Than Solitude shimmers throughout with unease.”Sactown
 
“A story laced with intrigue, friendship, and culture.”Flavorwire
 
“Li’s gifts of insight into human nature [make her writing] patient, observant, and precise.”The Millions
 
“Starkly beautiful . . . puzzling and provocative . . . One of the strengths of the book is that it has a philosophical quality that leaves much open for interpretation.”The Asian Review of Books
 
“Li’s chilly, philosophical storytelling offers layers of unsettling yet impressive insight into family legacies and cultural dynamics.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“Li’s fourth work of fiction gives readers the trappings of a murder mystery with none of the dull formula. Instead, she burrows deeply into the minds of her characters. Her prose, by turns sumptuous and austere, is utterly precise, whether describing a crematorium, a roasted yam, or midwestern snowfall. A brilliant, sorrowful, and unpredictable novel.”Booklist
 
“Li’s effortless ability to move fluidly in time and place—between minutes or decades and across continents—always with exacting details, gives this novel a shattering immediacy. Discerning readers who appreciated the well-traveled, multicultural virtuosity of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered, and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone will find rewarding satiety in Solitude.”Library Journal
 
“Masterfully composed . . . [Li] offers a rarer pleasure: plentiful astute human characterization. Kinder Than Solitude teems with memorable individuals of all ages whose actions spring from their traits. Li also enhances the reader’s surmising of responsibility for Shaoai’s poisoning by subtly realigning sympathy and suspicion from one chapter to the next.”Shelf Awareness
 
“There’s an elegance and smoothness to her writing that is actually disguising the quite passionate and intense feelings of equivocation and loss that her characters feel. She’s almost a nineteenth-century writer: You can feel tradition speaking through her work in a way that doesn’t exist today.”—John Freeman

“I can’t remember the last time I read a novel at once so relentless and elegant, so precise and ranging. The lives in Kinder Than Solitude are forever warped by a childhood tragedy, but Li won’t let these tortured souls off the hook. This novel is fierce as a searchlight, blazing into every dark corner of  its characters’ psyches, and ours. I couldn’t look away.”—Ayana Mathis
 
“Li is a high modernist. She infuses the traditional form with a fresh, rigorous beauty. Her novel is as clean and sharp and smart as a great piece of midcentury furniture, with that sense of permanence and increasing value.”—Mona Simpson

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