By Cynthia Solis
My Year Abroad, by Chang-Rae Lee is a genuinely mesmerizing book, an exceptionally provocative story about a young American boy who embarks on an unusual adventure across Asia.
The novel opens with the protagonist, Tiller Bardmon, a 20-year-old college dropout from New Jersey, who just got back from an adventure overseas, recounting his experiences in explicit detail. The 500 page novel tells about the time Tiller went to Asia.
Asia is a place many of Lee’s previous protagonists explore in his other books, Native Speaker (1995) and On Such a Full Sea (2014), left for the United States.
Tiller is “twelve and one-half percent Asian,” which is one-eighth. The novel discusses the prospect that America has a “growing minority of basic almost white boys.”
It is revealed that his lover, Val, an enigmatic older woman (she is in her thirties) and her son, Victor Jr, and Tiller all live in a small town he refers to as Stagno.
They met in the Hong Kong International Airport’s food court, where they talked about everything as they waited for their flight back to New Jersey.
Val is a presumed widow and in witness protection after alerting the FBI to her husband’s illegal business activities. As a result, the couple is forced to keep a low-profile.
Stagno is the home base of the novel, which the story returns to while Tiller’s past is revealed to the reader. Tiller grew up as the only child in a small, fictional college town, essentially describing Princeton’s college town, where author Lee, lived and taught for many years.
When Tiller was a young boy, his mom abandoned him and his family, which he has struggled to accept. The novel makes this exceptionally clear, as it circles back to the unresolved issue often.
His dad, Clark, is checked-out, also suffering from the mother’s departure. He does show rather sincere love for Tiller.
After going abroad to what his dad thought was a standard semester abroad in a Western European city, Tiller was back home. Clark would have been right if Tiller didn’t meet Pong Lou the summer before his departure. Pong Lou is an entrepreneur- working at a big pharma company and owning a frozen yogurt chain.
He ended up giving Tiller a business card after being extremely impressed by their post-golf-round drinking session.
The novel also mentions a ton of food; it is incredibly food-obsessed. Pong and Tiller eat like trenchermen, packing away feast after feast as if they were Lorelai and Rory Gilmore in Gilmore Girls.
During one of the author’s narrative tangents, Victor Jr. is a very talented chef, making tea-smoked squab and kimchi juice-pickled oyster shooters.
Not only that, but while they are in witness protection, they open a pop-up restaurant out of their home.
People always pour in and out of the restaurant, raving about Victor’s food, posting photographs of their feasts on social media.
By looking at his past novels, you can noticeably tell that the narrators have frequently been aged, suiting him in print since he is known to be an old soul. This is one of the novel’s drawbacks since Tiller rarely sounds like a typical 20-year-old.
While some may argue that it makes sense since he has been through a few traumas and that ages an individual, Tiller makes some hard observations, like “We’re beasts of our burdens, which never lighten.”
That being said, there are very many funny moments throughout the novel.
One example is when it is finally revealed what happened to Tiller in his semester abroad, which he refers to in the first chapter.
This speaks to the kind of writing Lee uses- very humorous.
Lee is the kind of author that would include his personal life in his writing.
Seeing that Lee is a professor, one may conclude he has seen students lose focus during one of his lectures because every page you read of My Year Abroad pulls your attention and holds it.
It proves that writers had perfected the addictive storytelling long before TV did.
Not only that, but Lee also dedicated his book to his teachers. Also, the relationship Tiller and Pong share are very teacher-like.