Searching for answers about her Chinese mother generates tension between Lily and her adoptive Caucasian family, while the onset of the Korean War prompts a growing anti-Chinese sentiment at her school.
Lily rejects her Chinese heritage, perceiving it as socially unacceptable even as she deeply longs to understand her birth mother. Lily’s fragmented memories of her mother—her scent, the color of her sweater, the texture of her hair—and the yearnings they inspire are the novel’s most genuinely affecting moments. They convincingly explain Lily’s determination to secretly investigate her heritage after her brother uncovers a box of Chinese artifacts in their attic. Unfortunately, the mystery of her mother that has so tormented Lily is too easily solved, thanks to a series of narrative conveniences that, taken together, seem unlikely. Several additional plotlines, including a romance, the school janitor’s speeches about racism and a nun’s decision to leave the order, further dilute the potential drama of Lily’s search for her mother. Lily’s spirited younger brother provides welcome instances of humor. Though the plot is sometimes uneven, ultimately readers will applaud Lily’s increased appreciation of her Chinese heritage.
Despite moments of beautiful sensory detail, the novel ends up feeling didactic rather than genuine. (Historical fiction. 12-18)