Synopsis (Goodreads): Moving back and forth in time, between America today and China in the 1990s, Kinder Than Solitude is the story of three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed. As one of the three observes, “Even the most innocent person, when cornered, is capable of a heartless crime.”
When Moran, Ruyu, and Boyang were young, they were involved in a mysterious “accident” in which a friend of theirs was poisoned. Grown up, the three friends are separated by distance and personal estrangement. Moran and Ruyu live in the United States, Boyang in China; all three are haunted by what really happened in their youth, and by doubt about themselves. In California, Ruyu helps a local woman care for her family and home, and avoids entanglements, as she has done all her life. In Wisconsin, Moran visits her ex-husband, whose kindness once overcame her flight into solitude. In Beijing, Boyang struggles to deal with an inability to love, and with the outcome of what happened among the three friends twenty years ago.
My first experience of Yiyun Li was through a collection of short stories in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, and I remember being underwhelmed. Reading Kinder Than Solitude highlighted why second chances are so important. After reading this book I feel that Yiyun Li’s writing style is much better suited to the longer novel where she has the freedom to develop her characters and the plot at, what can only be described as, a tantalising pace.
The crime (or accident?) that binds Boyang, Moran and Ruyu together unhurriedly unfolds parallel to gradually unveiled insights into the three main characters. The writing is incredibly poetic with insightful and provocative observations about human nature, life, and loneliness, particularly about introverted and solitary personalities and how they are often misunderstood. While Boyang and Moran’s personalities were fairly straightforward, it was Ruyu’s personality that was the most enigmatic and it left me somewhat confused between empathising with her and wanting to shake some sort of humanity into her.
The story itself is a skillful exploration of how upbringing, relationships and choices breed consequences that can resonate through rest of your life.
For me, it warranted 4 stars because I felt like Ruyu’s return to Beijing was rushed, very unlike the pace of the rest of the story, and I just wasn’t convinced by the reunion between Ruyu and Boyang, and the ending. Still, it’s definitely worth a read.