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Reader's Companion to Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah

Broadway Books trade paperback, ISBN 0-7679-0357-9, $13.00 US

Reader's Companion to Falling Leaves© 1999 by Broadway Books.


1. Introduction to the Book
2. Questions for Group Discussion
3. About the Author
4. Suggestions for Further Reading

Introduction to the Book

"Riveting. A marvel of memory. Poignant proof of the human will to endure."
--Amy Tan

"Scorching and vivid."
--The New York Times Book Review

Adeline Yen Mah's years of mental and physical abuse began when her mother died shortly after giving birth to her, leaving Adeline to suffer under a cold and manipulative stepmother, Niang, whose sadistic acts were never questioned by her husband.

Adeline's only refuge was her beloved Aunt Baba, the older sister of Adeline's father, who was also despised because she was a spinster and financially dependent on her brother. Eventually Adeline traveled to London to study medicine, then made a new life for herself in the United States.

But her horrific childhood continued to haunt her. Her father, who was a multi-millionaire, died in 1988, but Niang prevented his children from reading his will by telling them that he had died penniless. Niang herself passed away two years later, and the drama surrounding her death played itself out like a scene from Adeline's childhood re-enacted 40 years later.

It was only through writing her memoir that Adeline could accept her roots and exorcise the demons from her past. Written with a powerful voice that illuminates the complexities of Chinese society and family relationships throughout all cultures, Falling Leaves is a work of startling, heartfelt intimacy.

Questions for Group Discussion

The questions that follow are intended to enhance your group's discussion of Falling Leaves, and we hope that they will also help you discover additional lines of inquiry into this moving chronicle of a young Chinese girl's struggle for love and survival.

  • The basis for the book's title is the Chinese aphorism "falling leaves return to their roots." Why do you think Adeline Yen Mah chose this title? What does it mean in the context of her story?

  • Adeline Yen Mah begins her story with the reading of her father's will. Why do you think she chose this point in time to start her story? How does it set the tone for the book?

  • The author consistently gives the Chinese character, the phonetic spelling, and the English translation when using Chinese phrases. Why do you think she does this? What does it say about her, and how does it affect you?

  • Overall how would you characterize the author's life in China? Was there any happiness for her? What strategies does she use to cope with the situation and who aided her in those efforts? How would you have reacted in similar circumstances?

  • Discuss the social hierarchy of the Yen household. How did Adeline fit in? How about Ye Ye and Aunt Baba?

  • Of the many instances of cruelty that Adeline faced as a child, which ones affected you most strongly? Why?

  • How would you characterize the author's relationship with her Aunt Baba? How about with her grandfather Ye Ye?

  • How did the author's life change once she moved to England? What factors motivated this change? Why was medical school such an appropriate place for her?

  • How did the author change during her stay in Britain? How is she different? How is she the same? How does this affect her career path? How does it affect her relationship with her father and stepmother?

  • During her time in America the author's relationship with her parents and her siblings changes. Discuss these changes and what brought them about.

  • Why do you think the author became involved with Karl and Byron? Why do these relationships turn out the way they do? What about her relationship with Bob? Compare and contrast them.

  • Throughout the story Adeline comes across as a remarkable individual. She is possessed of remarkable strength, resilience, and compassion. Is there any precedent for this in her family?

  • Despite the difficulties of her childhood and the lack of emotional support from her parents, the author manages to succeed and ultimately leads a happy life. How is she able to achieve this despite her childhood emotional deprivation?

  • There are a number of funerals in the book, notably Ye Ye's, Father's, and Niang's. Discuss how the members of the family react to them. How are they different? How are they similar?

  • In the end, everyone becomes powerless in the face of Niang: the children, Aunt Baba, Ye Ye, even the author's father. Why is this? Even after her death she still is trying to manipulate the children. To what degree is she victorious? To what degree does she fail and why?

  • What does the author learn after Niang's death: about her stepmother, about her siblings (particularly Lydia and James), and about herself? What is your final impression of Niang and of her children? How do you think they came to be this way?

  • The author subtitles the book, "The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter." How are the events portrayed influenced by Chinese society and customs? To what degree is this account of an abusive childhood universal? Would the events be different if they were to occur in another society? If so, how?

  • What is the significance of the fairy tale told to the author by Aunt Baba on the aunt's deathbed? Compare the story to Cinderella. In the end, what do we learn about Aunt Baba's role in Adeline's life and about her attitudes toward her niece?

  • The author has said, "I read somewhere that an unhappy childhood is a writer's whole capital. If that is so, then I am rich indeed." Memoirs such as Angela's Ashes and The Liar's Club have centered on unhappy childhoods. In your opinion, what is the reason for this genre's recent popularity with readers? How have these memoirs influenced modern storytelling? In what ways do these stories inspire writers and readers alike?

About the Author

Adeline Yen Mah is a physician and writer who lives in Huntington Beach, California. Falling Leaves is her first book. Recently she completed her second, a book for children entitled Chinese Cinderella, which will be published by Dell in October 1999. Adeline is dedicating both books to unwanted children in the hope that they will persist to do their best in the face of despair, to believe that in the end their spirit will prevail, and to nurture their childhood traumas into a source of courage, creativity, and compassion.

Falling Leaves is Adeline's plea to the collective conscience of the world to win a reprieve. It is a symbol of her quest for justice on behalf of unloved children.

Royalties from Falling Leaves are donated by the author to a foundation modeled after the Rhodes Scholarship Program to enable students to study at universities in Beijing and Shanghai.

Suggestions for Further Reading

The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan

Wild Swans
by Jung Chang

Life and Death in Shanghai
by Nien Cheng

The Woman Warrior
by Maxine Hong Kingston

Bound Feet & Western Dress
by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang