A carefully plotted first novel self-consciously details the long reach of the past as foreign students struggle to forget what they have left behind, and their teacher, already married, falls in love with a married man.
Fisher is good on the details. Richmond, Virginia, and the college setting are vividly evoked, and the minor characters, especially Korean immigrant Sungae, an artist and ESOL student, are fully realized people whose plights move and engage. The starring lovers, Annie and Will, on the other hand, seem intellectual and emotional lightweights despite all the labored efforts to make their story meaningful. It begins as the new school-year opens, and Annie, who teaches English as a second language, is getting prepared. She loves teaching, but the traumas of the last two years—after numerous miscarriages she was told she would be unable to bear children, and she's feeling guilty about leaving Carter, her husband, whom she's known since grade school—have made her less sure of herself. In her first class she asks her students to write "telling lines": a single sentence that would forecast the narrative of their lives. The assignment distresses Sungae, for it brings back all the painful memories of her extramarital love affair and the daughter she left behind in Korea. As Sungae finds herself able to acknowledge her grief and guilt, Annie and Will, now living together, also deal with their respective pasts. Will, who has left his wife and daughter, feels guilty and misses being a full-time dad. And Annie misses Carter, whose anguish leads him to set fires outside her apartment. But in the year that follows, Annie and Will, as well as Sungae, understand that they must let go of the past by learning—all too cutely—the language of good-bye.
Well-intentioned, but far too strained to bring out the hankies.