“Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.”
It took me several weeks to get through The Astonishing Color of After, not because I was bored, but because the prose was so rich and the story was so deeply emotional that I felt I could only consume it in bite-sized pieces. Not to brag, but I think this is exactly the right way to read Emily X.R. Pan’s gorgeous debut. I spent so long with the book that I felt totally immersed in Leigh’s perspective and was an easy target for the various emotional gut-punches.
I’m probably making this book sound miserable (and, to be clear, the subject matter is far from cheerful) but it isn’t a miserable read. While it deals with some heavy stuff, the tone of the book is curious and colorful and hopeful. It hurts, but only in the best way.
If you read the publisher synopsis and thought so… her mother turns into a bird? It’s about a girl in Taiwan dealing with suicide and meeting her grandparents? I’ll pass on this one. know that I forgive you and you’re not alone. This is one of those books that shouldn’t have a blurb because there’s absolutely no good way to describe the plot of this book but you have to get people to read it somehow.
This is how I sell the book to friends: You know that condition that causes some people to blend or connect different senses? Most commonly, associating colors with sounds or smells or experiences or emotions? Synesthesia? Well, the main character has some synesthesia, but really, it’s like the book has synesthesia. It’s this dreamlike swirl of colors and images that explores family and grief and heritage and mystery through the eyes of a young artist. And there’s a lot of passages about food. And it tore my heart out and it’s amazing.
If that doesn’t help, then I don’t know what to tell you.
One thing I do find interesting about the blurb: it puts the mother’s suicide right up front, which, even though it happens in the first chapter, is a bit of a spoiler if you truly want to read the book without prior knowledge. Because it’s devastating. You don’t know this woman or her family, but the death is every bit as impactful as a climatic death of a character that’s been around for half a series. Pan’s development of those characters is so complete and masterful that she doesn’t need to mess around introducing them to the reader for chapters and chapters before something happens; she can just dive in. I cared about those people after just a couple of pages.
This book, while making the rounds on some “summer reads” lists, is most certainly not a beach read. It’s what I like to call a thunderstorm read. The spring release date perfectly times it to be read from underneath a warm blanket in front of a rain-splashed window, listening to the comforting and thrilling sounds of thunder rumbling and rain pounding the roof. I strongly recommend finishing the book after midnight: it’s perfect in the dark, and you’ll want time alone to wander quiet hallways and sigh as you digest the ending.
The seamless way Pan blended the natural and magical in Leigh’s environment made the novel’s twists and shifts surprising but never feeling random. Many readers have identified the supernatural elements in the story with the magical realism genre, which is a reasonably good fit, though it’s worth noting that the author herself avoids using the term:
“I think of this book as “contemporary with magical elements” rather than magical realism, since the bit of magic that exists in the book is not in response to oppression and colonialism, which is how the magical realism genre was born.”
The full interview from School Library Journal is wonderful. It gives great insight into the novel’s formation over the course of its eight-year (!) journey to the page.
In that interview and others, Pan discusses the way the novel transformed dramatically through multiple drafts as she rewrote and reframed the narrative. The amount of thought and research put into this book really shows—not in the laborious, over-wrought way, but in the way that immediately gives me that relaxing, exciting feeling of being in good hands. Even as things become strange, I never doubted that Pan knew exactly where she was taking me. Pan took great pains to create honest and respectful portrayals of mental illness, loss, and being a biracial Taiwanese-American, and I think it’s that incredible care that makes the book feel so raw and earnest.