The Leavers

by Lisa Ko

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The juxtaposition of characters in The Leavers is perhaps one of the richest parts of Lisa Ko's writing. Much of the story can be explored by comparing and contrasting Daniel with Polly, Daniel's biological parents with his adoptive parents, Daniel with Angel, Polly with Leon, and so on. Juxtapositions can even be found in single characters, as in the contrast between Deming and Daniel or between Polly and Peilan (including the person she is before she comes to America and the person she becomes after she returns to China). This is also reflected deeply in Daniel and Polly's obsession with finding their "doppelgangers."

By positioning characters with such striking connections and differences, Ko is able to show the different paths life can take, both due to circumstance and due to personal choice. Since the novel's themes center so much on identity and agency, this is a powerful tool. For example, Daniel's and Polly's individual journeys from the time Polly is deported gain even more value when considered in tandem. Daniel's involuntary name change (from Deming Guo to Daniel Wilkinson) is striking when considered alongside Polly's assuming a new life in China, while Polly's decision to leave her husband resonates even more as Daniel decides to return to New York instead of staying with his mother.

The various settings of The Leavers also contribute deeply to the novel's meaning. For example, the village Polly grows up in is a deeply isolated place where everyone knows each other. This is starkly different from the bustling, anonymous setting of New York City. Beyond this, Daniel's despondency after his adoption by the Wilkinsons is mirrored by the bland suburban town he moves to. The settings each character encounters further the theme of how individuals are shaped by their circumstances.

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