Summary and book reviews of The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee

The Surrendered

By Chang-rae Lee

The Surrendered
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Hardcover: Mar 2010,
    480 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2011,
    496 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Judy Krueger

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Book Summary

With his three critically acclaimed novels, Chang-rae Lee has established himself as one of the most talented writers of contemporary literary fiction. Now, with The Surrendered, Lee has created a book that amplifies everything we've seen in his previous works, and reads like nothing else. It is a brilliant, haunting, heartbreaking story about how love and war inalterably change the lives of those they touch.

June Han was only a girl when the Korean War left her orphaned; Hector Brennan was a young GI who fled the petty tragedies of his small town to serve his country. When the war ended, their lives collided at a Korean orphanage where they vied for the attentions of Sylvie Tanner, the beautiful yet deeply damaged missionary wife whose elusive love seemed to transform everything. Thirty years later and on the other side of the world, June and Hector are reunited in a plot that will force them to come to terms with the mysterious secrets of their past, and the shocking acts of love and violence that bind them together.

As Lee unfurls the stunning story of June, Hector, and Sylvie, he weaves a profound meditation on the nature of heroism and sacrifice, the power of love, and the possibilities for mercy, salvation, and surrendering oneself to another. Combining the complex themes of identity and belonging of Native Speaker and A Gesture Life with the broad range, energy, and pure storytelling gifts of Aloft, Chang-rae Lee has delivered his most ambitious, exciting, and unforgettable work yet. It is a mesmerizing novel, elegantly suspenseful and deeply affecting.

ONE

Korea, 1950

THE JOURNEY WAS NEARLY OVER.

The night was unusually chilly, the wind sharpened by the speed of the train as it rolled southward through the darkened valley. The cotton blanket June had stolen was large enough to spread as a tarp and at the same time wrap around her younger brother and sister and herself, but it was threadbare and for brief stretches the train would accelerate and the wind would cut right through to them. It had not been a problem the night before but now they were riding on top of the boxcar, as there was no more room within any of them, even as the train was more than a dozen cars long. A massive phalanx of refugees had met the train at the last station, and in the time it took her siblings to relieve themselves by the side of the tracks they had lost their place and had had to climb the rusted ladder between the cars, June running alongside for fifty meters until her brother was high enough on the rungs so she herself could jump up and on.

...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In the orphanage, June is a bully to the other children and shows affection only to Sylvie. Yet when we first meet her, she is incredibly caring to her sister and brother. What do you think caused this change in her personality? How did her experiences as a young girl shape the adult she became?

  2. Hector seems to develop true feelings for Dora. If things had ended differently in the final scene with Dora, do you think he would still have gone off with June? Why or why not? Do you think his experience with Sylvie colored his relationship with Dora? How?

  3. Do you think Sylvie and Tanner would have adopted June had things not happened the way they did turned out differently? Why or why not?

  4. June seems fixated on finding Nicholas even ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

With his most powerful prose yet, Lee shows us that war damages people far beyond any other kind of abuse life offers and that persons damaged by the losses, violence and displacement of war will go to great lengths to work out either retribution or salvation... If I could, I would make the book required reading for politicians, diplomats, world leaders and arms dealers, though many of them would possibly not get the message.   (Reviewed by Judy Krueger).

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Media Reviews
The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

If the reader stops and thinks about it, there are lots of infelicities of craft in this novel... But Mr. Lee writes with such intimate knowledge of his characters’ inner lives and such an understanding of the echoing fallout of war that most readers won’t pause to consider such lapses — they will be swept up in the power of The Surrendered and its characters’ aching and indelible stories.

The Washington Post

We're willing enough to go along with this dubious plot point and several jarringly melodramatic episodes that punctuate an otherwise coherent narrative. What's harder to accept, from an author for whom character has always been paramount, is the lack of dimensionality in both Hector and Sylvie, who manage to seem vaporous and wooden at the same time... With one full-hearted portrait out of three, Lee has only partially but rather magnificently succeeded.

The New Yorker - James Wood

... commendably ambitious, extremely well written, powerfully moving in places, and, alas, utterly conventional... Lee is a gifted chronicler of war, but The Surrendered also squanders those gifts, in a misguided attempt to choreograph a satisfyingly "good read"...

The Chicago Sun-Times

The novel is not perfect. There are moments of redundancy and melodrama, and several improbable plot twists are jarringly over the top. These are small complaints in what is in the end a rewarding read filled with the aura of mystery. Lee’s wonderful use of words and images grabs you from the first page and never lets go. It is an epic story stalked by death, but also one filled with breathtaking jolts of life, love and hints of happiness.

Elle

Beautiful, riveting, piercingly haunting ... The settings and times are masterfully interwoven to form an elegant, disturbing inquiry into courage, love, loyalty, and mercy. .... This is a book to read in two or three long sittings, gulping pages, turning them as fast as possible to reach the perfect, inevitable ending.

The New York Times - Terrence Rafferty

This novel…gathers life greedily, hungrily, but with a certain stealth: Lee doesn't bolt it all down at once, as the refugee children in his story do. The Surrendered, his largest, most ambitious book, is about the horrors of war and the sorrows of survival, yet its manner is quiet, watchful, expectant, as if everyone, including Lee himself, were waiting to see what might accrue.

USA Today

... beautifully brutal and sad... less about war than its aftermath and the kind of scars that never heal... It's a complex story, rich in details, if at times too rich for impatient readers. In the end, it's not just about war's easy brutalities but also the power and limits of love.

The San Francisco Chronicle

This is not a happy book, but it is a rewarding one. The Surrendered grabs your attention - sometimes terrifying you in the process - and doesn't let go until its final moment. For a book permeated by death, its pages are breathtakingly alive.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [A] harrowing tale: bleak, haunting, often heartbreaking—and not to be missed.

Library Journal

Starred Review. [Lee's] ability to describe his characters' sufferings, both physical and mental, is extraordinarily vivid; one is left in awe of the human soul's ability to survive the most horrific experiences.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A major achievement, likely to be remembered as one of this year's best books.

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The Formation of The Red Cross

A Memory of Solferino, by Henry Dunant appears over and over throughout The Surrendered. Sylvie acquired the book from her parents and brought it with her to the orphanage in Korea. She is pictured reading it many times and June eventually steals it from Sylvie. It is the impetus for June's final pilgrimage. Though it is out of print, A Memory of Solferino can still be found through used booksellers and, at the time of writing, was available online here.

The Battle of Solferino was fought as part of the longer struggle for unification within the Italian peninsula during the nineteenth century. Before then, Italy as we now know it was divided between France, Austria, Spain and numerous small Italian principalities.

On June 24, ...

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