Genre: Young Adult, Magical Realism
Leigh is a 15-year girl who is grieving over the loss of her mother due to suicide. Convinced that her mother has transformed into a red bird that is trying to communicate with her, Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her estranged grandparents and decipher the bird’s mysterious message. With the help of a family friend, Leigh tries to track down the bird by seeking out those places that were significant to her mother. In the process, Leigh uncovers hidden family secrets that help her understand her mother’s suffering.
The Astonishing Color of After deals with tough subjects – depression, suicide, isolation, biracial and identity issues. All are subjects that need to be talked about openly, particularly with the young adult community. Therefore I was encouraged and excited to pick up a copy of Emily Pan’s book. And I will say that Pan addresses these topics with authenticity and sensitivity. Through the use of memory and flashbacks, we feel the weight of Leigh’s confusion and frustration over her mother’s mental illness and the stigma her father places on it. And as a result, we also bear her isolation and pain. Leigh is stuck between worlds — past vs present; love vs friendship; real vs magic; grief vs peace. Ouch. As if high school wasn’t hard enough.
Unfortunately while this book held a lot of promise in dealing with challenging topics, it didn’t quite come together for me. I found it really difficult to relate to Leigh. I found her to be irritating and whiney. And while it may be a realistic portrayal of a teen in her position, because the book was written in her voice, I couldn’t escape it and it prevented me from empathizing with her character or enjoying the book. Additionally, Pan gives Leigh a vocabulary of pantone colors to express her feelings, hence the title of the book. While a clever concept, it quickly becomes tedious and seems disconnected from the rest of the book. Overall, it left me a Pantone Cool Gray 1C — kind of meh.
What I did appreciate was way the story unfolded, giving the reader just enough intrigue to turn to the next page. Furthermore, I admire the way that Pan never fully explained the magical elements, thereby allowing the reader to determine for themselves what was real and what wasn’t. Personally, I hate being told what to believe or not to believe, and appreciate being able to form my own conclusions. So while Leigh’s irritating personality was a turn-off for me, there were elements of the book kept me engaged to the end.
I encourage you to give it a try. Maybe grab a color wheel from your local paint store on your way home from the bookstore, while you’re at it.