Summary and book reviews of The Collective by Don Lee

The Collective

A Novel

By Don Lee

The Collective

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Book Summary

A sparkling bildungsroman about friendship and betrayal, art and race.

In 1988, Eric Cho, an aspiring writer, arrives at Macalester College. On his first day he meets a beautiful fledgling painter, Jessica Tsai, and another would-be novelist, the larger-than-life Joshua Yoon. Brilliant, bawdy, generous, and manipulative, Joshua alters the course of their lives, rallying them together when they face an adolescent act of racism. As adults in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the three friends reunite as the 3AC, the Asian American Artists Collective - together negotiating the demands of art, love, commerce, and idealism until another racially tinged controversy hits the headlines, this time with far greater consequences. Long after the 3AC has disbanded, Eric reflects on these events as he tries to make sense of Joshua's recent suicide.

With wit, humor, and compassion, The Collective explores the dream of becoming an artist, and questions whether the reality is worth the sacrifice.

1

There's a road in Sudbury, on the outskirts of Boston, called Waterborne. Famous for the great blue herons that nest there, the road cuts through the immediate floodplain of the Sudbury River. It's lined with red maple, white oak, and dead ash yellows, long ago decimated by a virus. It curves and dips, wending through hills and an alluvial marsh, rising once again past meadows and farmland, then descending in a series of hairpin turns. It's a beautiful road - smooth, continuous, unsullied by houses or businesses - and therefore popular with bikers, runners, and drivers in a hurry. To no one's surprise, hardly a month goes by without some sort of accident on Waterborne.

It was around three o'clock on a Saturday afternoon in late September 2008, partly cloudy and unseasonably warm at seventy-six degrees, the tincture of fall edging the flora. Joshua Yoon, thirty-eight, was on his afternoon run on Waterborne, hugging the road's left edge so he could watch for approaching cars. He ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. If there was a final letter from Joshua to Eric that got misdirected to NStar, what do you think Joshua would have written?
  2. Are minority associations in various professions useful or counterproductive? What do they offer participants? Does the solitary nature of artistic work contribute to the 3AC's concern about defining themselves as part of a tribe or race and maintaining their cultural integrity? Why is it so difficult for the 3AC to create their mission statement?
  3. If the forty-one-year-old Eric who narrates this story were just meeting Joshua and Jessica now, would he still consider them as interesting as he had when they were college freshmen?
  4. Do you think Eric and Joshua consider Jessica an equal in their three-sided friendship ...
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Reviews

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Lee has also mentioned that he wants to shed light on how Asian Americans wrestle internally with race. Sometimes The Collective wears this agenda on its sleeve too readily, but it serves as a must-read for everyone interested in the discussion of racial identity and its place in our supposedly post-racial world. Even if these issues can be answered internally within an individual race, even if a minority artist can move beyond the confines dictated by the stereotypes of his racial identity, one question still looms large: Will society as a whole welcome it? Coming from a gifted writer like Lee, the answer, we hope, will most definitely be yes.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Full Review Members Only (981 words).

Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

Questions of racial identity permeate every page, but apart from a lot of sex, there is too much telling and not enough showing. The author's themes overload his slight story with spineless characters unable to bear their depressive weight.

Kirkus Reviews

A novel undone by Lee's indecisiveness over how much slack to cut his protagonist, the obnoxious Joshua.

Library Journal

Offering strong characterizations and thought-provoking prose, Lee addresses the Asian American experience from various vantage points, realistically examining themes ranging from personal relationships to racism and artistic censorship.

Booklist

Lee smashes Asian stereotypes to pieces to present a provocative look at what it truly means to have one's identity tied to not just oneself but also an entire race.

Christian Science Monitor

The Collective brilliantly sorts through issues of friendship, intimacy, idealism, art, sacrifice, racism, and publicity. Don Lee is a phenomenal writer that you absolutely should know, and The Collective is a book you absolutely should read.

Entertainment Weekly

Lee comes with an agenda - an important one - about ethnicity and art, but he also delivers a heartbreaking, sexy, and frequently funny story about fractured friendships. EW's Grade: A

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The Asian American Writers' Workshop

In The Collective, the characters Eric Cho, Joshua Yoon, and Jessica Tsai form a shaky coalition called the 3AC - Asian American Artists Collective. A similar organization was founded in New York around twenty years ago: The Asian American Writers' Workshop.

Asian American Writers' Workshop logo This non-profit organization works to spread the growth of literature by Asian American writers, remove cultural stereotypes, and promote a dialog that values the place of Asian Americans in contemporary American society.

The workshop got its beginnings when nearly a half-dozen Asian American writers got together at a diner in Brooklyn, NY and talked about the explosion in literary efforts by fellow citizens. They founded the workshop as a means of encouraging and nurturing ...

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