Emily X. R. Pan

The Astonishing Color of After

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The Astonishing Color of After Summary

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Emily X.R. Pan’s debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After (2018), a young adult magical realism novel, centers on a teenage girl grieving for her mother who committed suicide. Praised for its sensitive handling of mature themes, the Wall Street Journal named it one of the top twelve books of the season. Pan previously served as the editor-in-chief of the Washington Square Review and co-founded a popular magazine. She worked in the marketing department of Penguin Random House before writing novels full-time.

Leigh Chen Sanders, half-Asian and half-white, lives in the U.S.A. with her mother, Dory, and her father. Her father is distant but she has a strong relationship with her mother. She’s a quiet girl who loves art and creative things, and she doesn’t have many friends. Axel is her best friend, and she has a crush on him. However, she doesn’t flirt with him because she doesn’t want to risk such a precious friendship.

As the book opens, Leigh is hanging out in Axel’s basement. Out of nowhere, they share an awkward kiss; neither of them knows what it means. Leigh leaves, heading home to think it over. She prays that she hasn’t messed up the one great relationship she has. However, Leigh’s first kiss with Axel is the least of her problems when she arrives home to find that her mother has committed suicide.

Leigh is shocked and heartbroken when her father gives her the news. All she has left of her mother is a disturbing bloodstain on the floor and a strange note. The note tells Leigh to remember, but Leigh has no idea what her mother is referring to. She doesn’t tell her father about the note. Instead, she isolates herself from everyone, including Axel.

As her father plans the funeral, Leigh obsesses over the note. She wonders if there was anything that she could have done to stop this tragedy; she can’t help feeling like her mother is still alive. More than anything, she wishes she could turn back time and stay home that night instead of kissing Axel. She wasn’t there when her mother needed her. It seems that she will never forgive herself.

By the time her mother’s funeral comes around, Leigh feels completely lost and alone. The night before the funeral, she is tossing and turning with horrible nightmares when she hears her name being called from somewhere inside the house. She wakes up, realizing that it is her mother in the shape of a crimson bird trying to send Leigh a message.

Leigh asks the bird what she should do. The bird advises her to travel to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents. They have stories to tell Leigh about her mother—stories she must hear to move on. She convinces her father to take her to Taiwan. When she arrives, she meets her mother’s estranged family, sure that they’ll help her decipher the note and the bird’s strange messages.

However, in Taiwan, Leigh feels out of place, much like she does back home. Her grandparents try to make her feel comfortable. They tell her not to be like her mother. Dory spent most of her life running from her past and living in a deep depression that she didn’t share with anyone. She didn’t feel that she fit in with US culture, believing she had never belonged anywhere. This is a warning to Leigh to embrace who she is, as her mother could never do.

In Taiwan, Leigh builds her relationship with her father. She understands that he feels adrift, too, lost now that her mother is gone. Leigh wonders if together she and her father can make sense of her mother’s death and find the answers she’s looking for. Leigh is convinced that she will find the crimson bird in Taiwan and that when she does, she’ll be reunited with her mother.

However, Leigh eventually realizes there is no simple explanation for why her mother killed herself. Depression isn’t straightforward, and it’s impossible to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. Through her art and fostering relationships with her family, Leigh learns to let go of chasing her mother’s memory. Her father agrees that, when they get home, he will stop being so distant and be present in her life.

By the end of the novel, Leigh does remember—she remembers how to laugh, and love, and live, and that the past shapes us as much as the future. She remembers her mother, and together, she and her father will work through their pain. Instead of keeping her feelings bottled up, Leigh decides to be open about how she feels. She remembers how to be herself.