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Kinder Than Solitude: A Novel
by Yiyun Li

Published: 2014-02-25
Hardcover : 336 pages
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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 ...
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Introduction

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
 
“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 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

“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

“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

“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

“[Li] writes with acuity and nuance about ordinary lives set against broader cultural and social divides. . . . What makes [Kinder Than Solitude] so vivid is its humanity, the idea that nationality and history are less important than the vagaries of the heart.”Los Angeles Times

Editorial Review

Excerpted from a Conversation Between Yiyun Li and Mona Simpson

MS: The organization of both your novels emanates from a central, extremely dramatic event. The structure is almost a wheel, with spokes coming out from a center. The motors in your stories feel very different. Can you talk about how an idea settles in you for a novel? Is it different with stories?

YL: I love the description of a wheel with spokes coming out, and indeed both of my novels open with a death that the novel and the characters have to make sense of and deal with in all kinds of ways. For me, a novel starts with a situation, and a story starts with a character or a set of characters more than a situation. Kinder Than Solitude started with the situation that a woman was poisoned yet lived in a prolonged state of unnecessary misery for twenty-three years. Who was she? Who were the people involved? Why did the case remain unresolved? And what happened when the woman eventually died? These questions from that central situation were all mysteries to me when I started the novel.

MS: Beijing is almost a character in this novel, as it is in a few of your recent short stories. What is it like writing about Beijing in English for an English speaking audience?

YL: I once wrote to a friend and said that this novel was going to be my love letter to Beijing. I have given my fondest memories of Beijing to the three characters when they were teenagers, not only the tourist sites Boyang and Moran took Ruyu to see, but also the fabric of everyday life: old men sitting under a tree and expecting a fresh and forgettable story from Ruyu; Boyang and Moran on bicycles, free as Mongolian children on horsebacks; puddles after the rain; watermelon rinds rotting by the roadside.

Several Westerners living in Beijing have commented to me that the city I write about is mostly gone, and it is true, but its people havenâ??t changed much. Human nature evolves much more slowly than a city does, which is heartening. Thatâ??s why I love to read Jane Austen and Dickens. So writing about Beijing in English is like writing about California in English: the landscapes are characters that interact with the people.

MS: What does being a Chinese writer writing in English mean in terms of identity? We're each odd examples of global modernity. (I'm half Syrian, though I grew up in the US and write in English.)

YL: As novelists, we are transparent so our characters wonâ??t be. I think this global world seems to make it even easier for a writer to blend in and to be invisible: I donâ??t call myself a Chinese writer, or an American writer, or a Chinese-American writer, because I donâ??t feel the pressure to solve my identity; my only urgency is to stay as un-intrusive as possible when I write about the characters.

MS: You're a Chinese woman living in America, and you've cited William Trevor as your primary teacher. Which cultural lineage seems most significant to you: your national history or your literary legacy?

YL: I often think of oneâ??s national history as oneâ??s genes: something given, something predetermined. Literary legacy is, at least in my case, a choice. I only started writing in my late 20s, and by then I could decide whom to include in my literary genes: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Elizabeth Bowen, and of course William Trevor who, as you mentioned, is a primary influence. So my literary legacy comes from Irish literature and Russian literature.

MS: Youâ??ve recently become a US citizen. Have you been sworn in? It's hard to imagine either Ruyu or Moran becoming naturalized.

YL: I became a citizen in August, 2012, and yes, I have been sworn in. I think I knew the immigration status of both Ruyu and Moranâ??they are American citizensâ??and yet I refrained from making it too obvious in the novel. For Moran, her citizenship offers psychological shelter from the violence she does not understand; for Ruyu, the citizenship is, like everything else in her life, something she accepts and can discard without a second thought. In a deeper sense, however, both of them are so bound to the past that it is hard to imagine that becoming American citizens would change them in any fundamental way.

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