'Gold Boy, Emerald Girl': A Study In Solitude Yiyun Li's lyrical and elegant short stories explore loneliness in modern China. Born in Beijing in 1972, Li focuses with great empathy on older generations who survived the chaos and personal disruptions of the Cultural Revolution.


Book Reviews

'Gold Boy, Emerald Girl': A Study In Solitude

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl: Stories
By Yiyun Li
Hardcover, 256 pages
Random House
List Price: $25

Read An Excerpt

Yiyun Li is a marvel. Born in Beijing in 1972, she was trained as an immunologist, came to the States to study medicine in 1996, then switched to the Iowa Writers Workshop for an MFA. Her first collection, 2005's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the PEN/Hemingway and Frank O'Connor International Short Story awards. She followed that with a well-received novel, 2009's The Vagrants.

Although Li is young -- she was cited as a writing talent to watch on the New Yorker's recently published "20 Under 40" list -- the stories in her masterful new collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, often focus with great empathy on older generations who survived the chaos and personal disruptions of the Cultural Revolution.

In "Kindness," the novella that leads off the collection, Li balances three storylines: the narrator's upbringing in Beijing, as a girl; her compulsory year serving in the Chinese army; and flashbacks about her parents, whose secrets underscore the solitary life she has led. "Kindness" was inspired by a William Trevor short story, which gives a hint to Li's sensibilities. Like Trevor, the Irish master of the short story form, she is a miniaturist, tending toward restraint in her clear-eyed explorations of loneliness and the disappointments of those with modest expectations.

Quite a few of the stories play upon contemporary issues, including the changes that come with economic swings, and technological breakthroughs that resonate here as well as in China. A real estate boom in the wake of the legalization of private-owned housing is the foundation beneath an unusual love story, "Number Three, Garden Road." (The title is an address in Beijing.)

In the title story, a woman plays matchmaker for her 44-year-old son, encouraging a marriage with Siyu, 38, who has been her own frequent companion. It's an invitation Siyu thinks of as "an unexpected gift from a stingy life."

Yiyun Li's first collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Whiting Writer's Award. She lives in Oakland, Calif., with her husband and two children. Ye Rin Mok hide caption

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Ye Rin Mok

Yiyun Li's first collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Whiting Writer's Award. She lives in Oakland, Calif., with her husband and two children.

Ye Rin Mok

In "House Fire," a group of women in their 50s and 60s works as private investigators, tracking down husbands who cheat on their wives. The six are flummoxed when confronted by their first male client, a man who believes his father is having an affair with his wife. One of them, Mrs. Mo, recalls her own surprise when she discovered her husband's love affair of two decades with another man. "People were easily deceived by all kinds of facades," Li writes.

In "The Proprietress," a Shanghai reporter arrives in a village to interview a woman who has petitioned the court in an unusual rights case, hoping to have a child by her husband, who is being executed for murder.

"Prison" revolves around a grief-stricken couple whose only daughter, a 16-year-old who loves Emily Dickinson and wants to go to Harvard, has been killed in a car accident. They have sacrificed their careers -- he was a doctor, she an editor -- to come to the U.S. so Jade could get a better education. When they return to China and, with the help of a surrogate mother, seek to replace their lost child, the stakes shift drastically.

Li's insights into Chinese culture make her stories fascinating reading. But the greatest pleasure comes from the admirable elegance of her work. Her writing is lyrical, circular and finely etched, with an emotional impact that both satisfies and surprises.

Excerpt: 'Gold Boy, Emerald Girl'

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl: Stories
By Yiyun Li
Hardcover, 256 pages
Random House
List Price: $25


Yilan’s daughter died at sixteen and a half on a rainy Saturday in May, six months after she had got her driver’s license. She had been driving to a nearby town for a debate when she had lost control. The car traveled over the median and ran into a semi. The local newspapers put her school picture side by side with the pictures from the site of the accident, the totaled black Nissan and the badly dented semi, the driver standing nearby and examining the damage to his truck, his back to the camera. The article talked about Jade’s success as an immigrant’s daughter -- the same old story of hard work and triumph -- how she had come to America four years earlier knowing no English, and had since then excelled in school and become the captain of the school debate team. It also quoted Jade’s best friend, saying that Jade dreamed of going to Harvard, which was a dream shared by Yilan and her husband, Luo; and that she loved Emily Dickinson, which was news to Yilan. She wished she had known everything about Jade so she could fill the remaining years of her life with memories of her only daughter. At forty-seven, Yilan could not help but think that the important and meaningful part of her life was over; she was now closer to the end than the beginning, and within a blink of the eyes, death would ferry her to the other side of the world.

The year following Jade’s accident, however, stretched itself into a long tunnel, thin-aired and never-ending. Yilan watched Luo age in grief and knew she did the same in his eyes. He had been a doctor in China for twenty years; they had hoped he would pass the board exam to become an American doctor, but, too old to learn to speak good English, he now worked in a cardiology lab as a research assistant and conducted open-heart surgery on dogs twice a week. Still, they had thought that the sacrifice of both their careers -- Yilan had been an editor of an herbal medicine journal -- was worthwhile if Jade could get a better education.

The decision to immigrate turned out to be the most fatal mistake they had made. At night Yilan and Luo held hands in bed and wept. The fact that they were in love still, despite twenty years of marriage, the death of their only child, and a future with little to look forward to, was almost unbearable in itself; sometimes Yilan wondered whether it would be a comfort if they could mourn in solitude, their backs turned to each other.

It was during the daytime, when Luo was at work, that Yilan had such thoughts, which she felt ashamed of when he came home. It was time to do something before she was torn in half into a nighttime self and a crazier, daytime self, and before the latter one took over. After a few weeks of consideration, she brought up, at dinner, the idea of adopting a baby girl from China. They would get a daughter for sure, she said, for nobody would be willing to give up a son.

Luo was silent for a long moment before he said, “Why?”

“All these stories about American parents wanting their adopted girls to learn Chinese and understand Chinese culture -- we could do at least as much,” Yilan said, her voice falsely positive.

Luo did not reply and his chopsticks remained still over his rice bowl. Perhaps they were only strangers living in the illusion of love; perhaps this idea would be the gravedigger of their marriage. “Another person’s unwanted child won’t replace her,” Luo said finally.

Even though his voice was gentle, Yilan could not help but feel a slap that made her blush. How could she expect that a girl not of their blood -- a small bandage on a deep, bleeding wound -- would make a difference? “Such nonsense I was talking,” she said.

But a few days later, when they retreated to bed early, as they had done since Jade’s death, Luo asked her in the darkness if she still wanted a child.

“Adopt a baby?” Yilan asked.

“No, our own child,” Luo said.

They had not made love since Jade’s death. Even if pregnancy was possible at her age, Yilan did not believe that her body was capable of nurturing another life. A man could make a child as long as he wanted, perhaps, but the best years of a woman passed quickly. Yilan imagined what would become of her if her husband left her for a younger, more fertile woman. It almost seemed alluring to Yilan: she could go back to China and find some peace and solace in her solitude; Luo, as loving a father as he was, would have a child of his blood. “I’m too old. Why don’t I make room for a younger wife so you can have another child?” Yilan said, trying hard to remain still and not to turn her back to him. She would not mind getting letters and pictures from him from time to time; she would send presents -- jade bracelets and gold pendants -- so the child would grow up with an extra share of love. The more Yilan thought about it, the more it seemed a solution to their sad marriage.

Luo grabbed her hand, his fingernails hurting her palm. “Are you crazy to talk like this?” he said. “How can you be so irresponsible?”

It was a proposal of love, and Yilan was disappointed that he did not understand it. Still, his fury moved her. She withdrew her hand from his grasp to pat his arm. “Ignore my nonsense,” she said.

“Silly woman,” Luo said, and explained his plan. They could find a young woman to be a surrogate mother for their fertilized egg, he said. Considering potential legal problems that might arise in America, the best way was to go back to China for the procedure. Not that the practice was legal in China, he said -- in fact, it had been banned since 2001—but they knew the country well enough to know that its laws were breakable, with money and connections. His classmates in medical school would come in handy. His income, forty thousand dollars a year, would be insufficient for carrying out the plan in America, but they were rich for the standard in China. Besides, if they brought the baby back to America, there would be less worry about the surrogate mother later wanting to be part of the baby’s life, as had happened to an American couple.

Yilan listened. Luo had been a surgeon in an emergency medical center in China, and it did not surprise her that he could find the best solution for any problem in a short time, but the fact that he had done his research and then presented it in such a quiet yet hopeful way made her heartbeat quicken. Could a new baby rejuvenate their hearts? What if they became old before the child grew up, and who would look after her when they were too frail to do so? An adopted child would be a mere passerby in their life -- Yilan could easily imagine caring for such a child for as long as they were allowed and sending her back to the world when they were no longer capable -- but a child of their own was different. “It must be difficult,” Yilan said hesitantly, “to find someone if it’s illegal.”

Luo replied that it was not a worry as long as they had enough money to pay for such a service. They had little savings, and Yilan knew that he was thinking of the small amount of money they had got from Jade’s life insurance. He suggested that they try Yilan’s aunt, who lived in a remote region in a southern province, and he talked about a medical school classmate, who lived in the provincial capital and would have the connections to help them. He said that they did not have much time to waste; he did not say “menopause” but Yilan knew that he was thinking about it, as she was. Indeed it was their last chance.

Yilan found it hard to argue against the plan because she had never disagreed with Luo in their marriage. Besides, what was wrong with a man wanting a child of his own? She should consider herself lucky that Luo, with a practical mind and a methodical approach to every problem in life, was willing to take such a risk out of his love and respect for her as a wife.

Excerpted from Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li. Copyright 2010 by Yiyun Li. Excerpted by permission of Random House.