Summary and book reviews of My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee

My Year Abroad

by Chang-rae Lee

My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee X
My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Feb 2021, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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Book Summary

From the award-winning author of Native Speaker and On Such a Full Sea, an exuberant, provocative story about a young American life transformed by an unusual Asian adventure – and about the human capacities for pleasure, pain, and connection.

Tiller is an average American college student with a good heart but minimal aspirations. Pong Lou is a larger-than-life, wildly creative Chinese American entrepreneur who sees something intriguing in Tiller beyond his bored exterior and takes him under his wing. When Pong brings him along on a boisterous trip across Asia, Tiller is catapulted from ordinary young man to talented protégé, and pulled into a series of ever more extreme and eye-opening experiences that transform his view of the world, of Pong, and of himself.

In the breathtaking, "precise, elliptical prose" that Chang-rae Lee is known for (the New York Times), the narrative alternates between Tiller's outlandish, mind-boggling year with Pong and the strange, riveting, emotionally complex domestic life that follows it, as Tiller processes what happened to him abroad and what it means for his future. Rich with commentary on Western attitudes, Eastern stereotypes, capitalism, global trade, mental health, parenthood, mentorship, and more, My Year Abroad is also an exploration of the surprising effects of cultural immersion—on a young American in Asia, on a Chinese man in America, and on an unlikely couple hiding out in the suburbs. Tinged at once with humor and darkness, electric with its accumulating surprises and suspense, My Year Abroad is a novel that only Chang-rae Lee could have written, and one that will be read and discussed for years to come.

1.

I won't say where I am in this greatish country of ours, as that could be dicey for Val and her XL little boy, Victor Jr., but it's a place like most others, nothing too awful or uncomfortable, with no enduring vistas or distinctive traditions to admire, no funny accents or habits of the locals to wonder at or find repellent. Call it whatever you like, but I'll refer to it as Stagno, for while it's definitely landlocked here, several bodies of murky water dot the area. There's a way that the days here curdle like the gunge that collects on the surface of a simmering broth, gunge you must constantly gunge away.

Still, Stagno serves its purpose. It's so ordinary that no one too special would ever choose to live here, though well populated enough that Val and Victor Jr. and I don't stand out. And we ought to stand out. For it would be natural to ask what a college-age kid was doing shacked up with a thirtysomething mom and her eight-year-old son, and why neither of us worked a job, or ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Despite its impressively consistent word-gymnastics, Lee's style can become cloying at times, and it fails to effectively carry the story over its nearly 500 pages and two full timelines that somehow make the novel feel simultaneously like too much and not enough. The storyline with Val is more thoroughly wrapped up than the one with Pong, which isn't as satisfying. Still, the book's ambitious construction comes alive through Tiller's elaborate assessments of the world around him, the theatrics of which are balanced by a profound dose of pathos that serves to blend the themes, style and overarching mood...continued

Full Review Members Only (699 words).

(Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook).

Media Reviews

NPR
[E]xuberant...Lee's writing style, as usual, is alive with wit and satiric social commentary...As an excursion, the novel mimics Tiller's own earlier description of those college semester abroad programs: boisterous and fun, but a bit light on core content.

Refinery29
Chang-rae Lee's electric new novel has the kind of kinetic energy that makes reading it feel like a full body experience, leaving you wondering and in awe of where exactly it will take you next… a virtuosic, wildly original book — one that cements Lee's status as one of the most exciting writers working today.

Vogue.com
My Year Abroad is an extraordinary book, acrobatic on the level of the sentence, symphonic across its many movements—and this is a book that moves…This isn't a book that skates through its many disparate-seeming scenes, but rather unites them in the heartfelt adventure of its protagonist, who begins his year "abroad" as a foreign land to himself and arrives at something like belonging by the end of his story.

BookPage (starred review)
[A] wildly inventive comic novel…Chang-rae Lee has written a surprising, spirited, keenly observed novel, full of the crazy and the profound.

Kirkus Reviews
The novel has an ungainly, baggy feel of having taken on too much; the two threads could be two separate novels. Yet Lee is masterful from passage to passage...A sage study in how readily we're undone by our appetites.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Lee's action-packed picaresque chronicles how an ordinary New Jersey college student ended up consorting with international criminals...This literary whirlwind has Lee running on all cylinders.

Booklist (starred review)
Lee is supreme, and this high-velocity, shocking, and wise novel, avidly promoted, is emitting an irresistible magnetic force.

Author Blurb Jeffrey Eugenides, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Middlesex
My Year Abroad is a strange and stirring amalgam: a tender novel about business, ambition, and appetite. With great generosity, and in a searching, democratic spirit, Chang-rae Lee describes the enticements, mirages, pleasures and catastrophes that attend not only the pursuit of wealth but the pursuit of happiness in all its forms, romantic, domestic, and, yes, gustatory. In Pong Lou, he has given American literature a character who deserves his place among other tragic dreamers, from Gatsby to J.R.

Author Blurb Jhumpa Lahiri, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Interpreter of Maladies
For a quarter century now, from book to book, [Chang-rae Lee] has explored the ever-urgent themes of alienation, assimilation, and identity with unmatched assurance and acuity. He has redefined not only what it means to be American, but the fabric of the Great American Novel itself.

Author Blurb Nathan Hill, New York Times-bestselling author of The Nix
My Year Abroad is a novel of astonishing wit and wisdom and scope, a globe-spanning story about those powerful first youthful encounters with love and evil and heartbreak and beauty. It's also, by the way, enormously fun to read. Chang-rae Lee is, clearly, a master.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Self-Serve Frozen Yogurt

White and orange swirled mochi frozen yogurt with rainbow sprinkles in 16 Handles cupIn My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee, Pong Lou enlists Tiller Bardmon to help with the formulation and branding of a product called jamu, a kind of restorative drink. However, Pong first tests Tiller's nose for business by having him taste and evaluate flavors for his self-serve frozen yogurt (froyo) chain, WTF Yo!. According to Tiller, the shop is "one of those places where you self-serve your preferred flavor of frozen yogurt ... and then hit the toppings bar and load up your cup with sweet and savory shit like crushed malt balls and mango chunks and wheat germ and then have it weighed to calculate the always shocking price." While frozen yogurt has been around as a commercial product in the United States since the 1970s, the kind of self-...

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