cover image Harmless Like You

Harmless Like You

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. Norton, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-324-00074-7

At the onset of Buchanan’s debut, a son shows up at the doorstep of his mother, Yuki, in Berlin after a 30-year separation. Jay’s there to settle Yuki’s inheritance—a house in Connecticut—after his father is killed in a car accident. The story of what prompted Yuki to abandon her family, as well as the details of Jay’s life as a New York gallery owner and recent father, unspool in sections stretching from 1968 to the present. Some parts are more effective than others. After her parents move back to Japan when she’s 16 and leave her in America, Yuki’s push to find love and purpose as an artist takes on a myopic urgency that teeters toward mania. It’s therefore no surprise that she drops out of school, stays in an abusive relationship too long before marrying Jay’s doting father, and becomes a suburban mother, all with creativity-crushing consequences. In contrast, Jay’s ineptitude—at staying loyal to his wife, caring for his “inarticulate pink flesh-sack” of a baby, and facing his emotions—reads like a series of temper tantrums. When mother and son bond over Jay’s ailing cat in Berlin, the union feels too easy given the depth of their estrangement. Still, Buchanan has a knack for mining the murky depths of what it means to identify as an artist, parent, and lover. The journey is sometimes tender, often agonizing—and everything in between. (Feb.)