Reasons to read ended too

January 10, 2020

This winter break, I decided that it was finally time to read a book that was not forced on me by a professor. After much deliberation, I settled on Yiyun Li’s “Where Reasons End,” which is not a book that one would normally find on my bookshelf: I’m not big on fiction. I’m not sure if I should’ve stepped out of my comfort zone for this book, but it was on Time’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2019, so you’d think it would be good. 

It is not a light book by any means, as it touches on many delicate subjects despite its shortness. It takes the shape of an imagined conversation between a mother and her teenage son who died by suicide. Li wrote the book during the months after she lost a child to suicide, which made the images she created much more vivid.

It is hard to give a brief summary of the book, since it is a conversation which unfolds with the turn of every page. The tone of the book was the first thing that surprised me. With a conversation about such a delicate subject, one would expect it to be very gentle. But it wasn’t. In fact, it was the exact opposite; you’d think you were reading a story about how much of a pain teenagers are. The mother and son go back and forth with each other, but that made the book so much more real to me: Even in such a dark book, there is the light of the humor. I also have to say, I really appreciate Li’s puns. 

Their conversations were a lot to unpack—some were worth the effort, others not so much. Other times it felt like there were just too many things going on to truly understand the underlying meaning of what the characters were trying to say or even try to. The entire book felt like a massive puzzle you have to put together, but since you need the rest of the puzzle to understand the first piece, it’s frustrating and just straight up hard. 

Neither of those unexpected aspects were necessarily a bad thing. What I think really turned me away from the book were the characters themselves. I get that the mother and son are both brilliant, but it always felt like they were reassuring each other of their brilliance. Other than clever comments directed towards each other, they seem to utterly lack a connection. They are supposed to be mother and son, but they feel like long-term roommates who decide whether or not to like each other daily. I feel like even after reading the book I still do not know either of the characters––that is how closed off they are. Not only were they closed off, but they were also incredibly static. Character development doesn’t seem to be a concept Li is aware of. If they went through at least some changes throughout the book, I may have tolerated them more. How can anyone like a book if the main characters are unlikeable? I understand that a large part of the book is how limiting language itself is, as demonstrated by the mother’s iconic line “there is no good language when it comes to the unspeakable.” That, however, does not warrant flat characters!

You’d think that a book of such nature would make you sad or cry, but it just failed to touch me. I wanted to be sad because of the book, and I think I should’ve been saddened by it. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that this was written by a grieving mother was upsetting, but it just wasn’t enough. I really wanted to be touched by this book, but it just didn’t make it. 

I do not know if it is me or the book, but this seems like a story with so much potential that failed to utilize any of it. I expected a touching story about love and loss and instead got a story about two pretentious people who seemed to despise each other.

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