The Astonishing Color of After — Emily X. R. Pan

The Astonishing Color of After

TITLE: The Astonishing Color of After
AUTHOR: Emily X. R. Pan
RELEASED: March 20th, 2018; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
GENRE: Fantasy/Contemporary
AGE RANGE: YA
SYNOPSIS: 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.

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This is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and it completely and utterly wrecked me. In case you aren’t aware, major trigger warnings for suicide and mental illness in the book and this review—proceed with caution and take care of yourself. ♥

My mother is free in the sky. She doesn’t have the burden of a human body, is not made up of a single dot of gray. My mother is a bird.

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First of all, the writing in this book is stunning. It’s got this beautifully magical, lyrical quality to it, and I tabbed so many passages just because the way Emily X. R. Pan weaves words together is breathtaking. I honestly could have compiled this entire review simply out of quotes (and I nearly did).

And maybe he could see how my mother had sliced up everything else. How even if he could wrench that arrow free, the rest of me was so punctured and torn that nothing would ever be able to suture me back together.

Leigh is such a great narrator for the story; she’s just unreliable enough that it can be hard at first to know if the things she’s seeing are actually happening to her, and it doesn’t help her any when her father refuses to believe a word she says about the bird she believes her mother has become. It’s a brilliant execution, as you’re frequently left to wonder, is the grief playing tricks on her, or is her mother, in fact, a bird?

This was my mother’s home for the first half of her life—can’t it feel a little bit like home to me, too?

Beyond her search for the truth about her mother’s life and death, there are two sub-plots running that I loved almost as much as the main theme: 1) Leigh’s time visiting her grandparents, where she feels so terribly out of place—having never been taught fluency in her mother’s native tongue, she struggles to communicate, and every time she steps outside, she is stared at and whispered about for being half white.

When did I last hear my mother play? I’m not sure; I guess that should’ve been a red flag.

There’s also a romantic undercurrent as Leigh dwells on what has happened to her friendship with her best friend, Axel, a biracial Puerto Rican/Filipino boy she’s grown up with and has suddenly found herself irrevocably in love with. I know a lot of readers wished the romantic aspect had been left out of the story, but for what it’s worth, I enjoyed it a lot, as it offered a lighter, more predictable reprieve here and there from the overwhelming heaviness of her mother’s suicide.

How crucial those little fragments are now; how great their absence. I should have saved them up, gathered them like drops of water in a desert. I’d always counted on having an oasis.

Of course, this isn’t a book written for the sole purpose of a love story or a trip to Taiwan; this is one of the saddest, most devastating stories I have ever read in my life. I’m going to get really personal (probably too much so) here, but this story hit every soft spot I’ve got.

Maybe it hit so close to home for me because my mother is one of my best friends in life, and to lose her so abruptly and with such little closure would undoubtedly fray away at the edges of everything I am, just as it did so for Leigh.

Maybe it threw an extra punch because I first began struggling with severe depression as a child, and it has never gone away, and there were too many days that I was almost a person-shaped hole in the hearts of my loved ones, too.

Maybe, as a mother who suffers with mental illness, this book was exactly the kind of reminder I needed to always keep fighting, because I couldn’t bear for my son to ever wonder if he failed at loving me the way Leigh wonders if she failed at loving her mother.

Whatever it was, I am so incredibly grateful to Emily X. R. Pan for this gift—and for never, for even a second, resorting to suicide-shaming, but for recognizing that it isn’t a selfish act of cruelty to one’s family, but a side effect of mental illness that cannot be blamed upon the victim.

If you are suffering from suicidal thoughts, please seek help. Please don’t let your illness take you away from the world, because I promise, it’s a better place with you in it. My inbox is always open, or you can contact any of these organizations if you’d like to remain anonymous:
• USA: National Suicide Prevention Lifelife: 1-800-273-8255
• USA: The Trevor Project (for queer youth): 1-866-488-7386
• USA/CA: The Trans Lifeline (for trans individuals): 1-877-565-8860
• UK: Samaritans: 116 123
• INTL: click here for a list of lifeline numbers and websites

5flowers


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Just a 26-year-old trying to juggle motherhood, grad school, blogging, gaming, and everyday life.

35 thoughts on “The Astonishing Color of After — Emily X. R. Pan

  1. I heard great things about this but i think i love yours most. I love those gems that we can connect so deeply to.

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  2. WOW! What a gorgeous review Destiny! ❤ I wish I loved it as much as you… ironically I deal with depression and I’m very close to my mother as well but I just couldn’t connect like you did. It’s great though that you were able to and I loved reading your review.

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  3. As a biracial person, I was able to relate so much to what Leigh went through, and the deep undercurrent of the Asian community NOT talking about their feelings or discussing mental health in general played a big part in what happened with Leigh’s mom, I believe.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this book, Destiny. ❤ It's one of my favorite YA contemporaries.

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    1. Oh my gosh, I can only imagine how much that representation would mean to you after you said that. It did surprise me a little bit that there wasn’t any substantial “discussion” with her mother’s family about *how* her mother died, but I didn’t realize that was an already present obstacle in Asian communities, so thank you for sharing that with me. ♥

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  4. I heard about this book but I didn’t know that it would have this much of an impact! I would definitely check this out!

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