on March 20, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Depression & Mental Illness, Family, Young Adult
Pages: 472 •Format: E-Book •Source: Overdrive
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.
The Astonishing Color of After caught my eye as it’s a mix of a lot of wonderful elements that I hadn’t quite seen put altogether before: magical realism, death & grief, mental illness, and an Asian protagonist. Excited by the synopsis and by the prospect of a setting in Thailand, I dove into the novel curious to see how all of the elements meshed together. What I encountered was a beautifully written story with vivid settings and prose that was literary without being too weighed down or pompous. A longer contemporary (clocking in at almost 500 pages), there are quite a few elements I’d like to break down and discuss, and what better way than to do so than in a list?
Things I Enjoyed About The Astonishing Color of After
- The word color is used in the title and the book does its due diligence in incorporating it into the story as well. Not only is Leigh an artist, many of those close to her are too (in varying mediums, which is amazing!) and her and her best friend Axel often ask each other to describe their emotions in colors, which I loved. Leigh would also use colors as adjectives through her internal narrative too.
- The settings were vivid, and though there were many flashbacks, my absolute favorite parts of the book were those when she was in the present with her grandparents in Thailand. There was so much detail about Thai customs and traditions, and I identified a lot with Leigh’s struggle of wanting to immerse herself in her heritage but always feeling like an outsider due to only being half Thai too. As a biracial child, seeing the struggles she encountered to bridge the language gap with her grandparents but also so desperately wanting to be connected to her heritage recall resonated with me.
- Can we also talk about how awesome it was to see a book feature grandparents so prominently?! I feel like as YA books get better about featuring parents, it’s still rare to see grandparents that play a large roll in the plot, and I loved the sweet moments of Leigh getting to know them, and by extension herself, better.
- The book doesn’t hold back when discussing the mental illness that Leigh’s mother suffered from, and I appreciated that the portrayal wasn’t just of the bad episodes, but showed how she struggled in day to day life to, from mustering up motivation to care for a pet to using cooking as a coping mechanism. Through the use of flashbacks there was enough time spent with Leigh and her mother for her death to have an impact on readers though the story technically starts afterwards.
- The magical realism elements were really well done, and never veered too far into the realm of fantasy where it made the book seem unbelievable. The elements were also tied up in elements about Thai beliefs that Leigh learns about, such as ghosts and passing to the afterlife after 49 days, and Leigh’s magical realism encounters tied into those beliefs in an intricate and well thought out way.
Things I Was Less Than Impressed With
- I know we’re supposed to be frustrated with Leigh’s relationship with her dad, but his aversion to her love of art was SO frustrating, especially since he nurtured her mother’s artistic side. It seemed disjointed that he himself was not technically in the most “practical” of fields but would impose expectations on Leigh that were so creatively limiting.
- I really, really think that this entire story could have been written with the romance omitted. While the romance didn’t overwhelm the plot, I was really disinterested in it and much more invested in the family aspect (and honestly tired of every YA book having to have a romance in it TBH). The romance was probably worth knocking at least a whole star off the rating for me.
- I also felt like there were too many flashbacks and would have liked to spend more time in the present with Leigh and her grandparents. The flashbacks with her mom and family were definitely important and beneficial, but the ones that were more romance focused were just do boring and made the story really drag.
- Overall I think this just could have been a little shorter.
Overall: The Astonishing Color of After is a book that’s equal part beautiful and tragic, and portrays grief and healing in equal measure. It isn’t afraid to dive headfirst into its portrayal of mental illness (especially regarding the stigma of mental illness in Asian culture) and builds multi generational bonds and relationships, and plays with the idea of there being only a thin veil between the living and the dead. While this wasn’t an all time favorite for me, I did enjoy it and am excited to see what else the author writes.