The Lingering Pain of Grief in Yiyun Li’s “Wednesday’s Child” – Chicago Review of Books

“I feel the most ridiculous thing is certainty,” the writer Yiyun Li once told Alexandra Kleeman in a profile for The New York Times. Li’s latest short story collection, Wednesday’s Child, shows once again how strongly she holds this. The collection’s eleven stories, written over the course of fourteen years, cover familiar ground for Li: Chinese-Americans, mothers and caregivers, and most of all, those grieving the suicides of loved ones and the trauma they carry in the wake—but the waters get murky beyond that. Most of the stories keep the characters at a slight remove—something of a trademark of Li’s work—offering only glances at the depths below. Through such distance, Li affords her characters a unique sort of dignity, not belittling their grief as something to be neatly solved in a clever plot point. In doing away with this contrivance, we’re left to do the heavy lifting, examining the characters presented as they grapple with their grief, knowing there are no easy answers to be found.

In the first story, which lends its name to the collection, a woman is on a solo trip as she deals with the trauma of the suicide of her daughter. This is not the only story in the collection that deals with a grieving woman traveling alone; two other such stories are collected here (potentially three, depending on how you define grief). In fact, many of the stories in Wednesday’s Child cover similar ground; and nearly all of them are touched by suicide or attempted suicide in some way. Yet these overlaps don’t make the book feel reductive—instead, Li’s careful handling and delicate prose allows us to examine these themes from different vantage points; revealing more in their repetition. There’s something timeless to many of the stories here, which makes this continual inquiry all the more inviting. These themes are close to Li, both having survived suicide attempts herself and having lost a son to suicide. But it’s her level of understanding of such a sensitive topic, and the distance she keeps from her characters that make Wednesday’s Child such a generous read.

The writer Garth Greenwell has described Li’s perspective as “utterly un-self-concerned, unsentimental love, a kind of brutal attention.” A less charitable writer might make these stories simply ones of “moving on” from trauma, of cathartic releases of emotion. But Li knows all too well there’s really no such thing. It’s a bold sort of writing contained in Wednesday’s Child, offering a glimpse into the lives of the characters, but few easy exits. My favorite story from the collection, “Let Mothers Doubt,” exemplifies this beautifully. In it, a woman named Narantuyaa is alone on a trip to Paris—a trip she’d planned as a gift to her brother Jullian before he died of an overdose. Their parents ran a Chinese restaurant in California despite being ethnically Mongolian, and were so busy with work that Narantuyaa was left to more or less raise her brother. Alone in Paris, she compares the difference between her and her deceased sibling. She works an average job where she’s having an affair with her married supervisor, while Jullian had wanted to become a musician. In college, she’s accused of being uncaring, and notes she might be thought of as meek. Yet Jullian saw her true nature:

He had once told Narantuyaa that her biggest character flaw was that she took nothing seriously; worse, what’s taken seriously by others, she always turned into a joke that she wouldn’t share with anyone. You’re that stingy, he said. But I don’t like to share anything, she said; I grew up poor. We both did, he said.

Narantuyaa did not correct him: she’d grown up with nothing; he, with something. It takes only a little more than nothing for desires to encroach upon one’s life. That, Narantuyaa thought, was the difference between her and Jullian: one cannot desire what one doesn’t take seriously. You should make more effort, Jullian had advised her.

While at a restaurant, Narantuyaa can’t help but notice a boorish American at another table. He clumsily attempts to converse with his date, before being distracted by a younger woman at the next table. As the younger woman gets ready to leave, Narantuyaa follows her into the bathroom to hand her a note containing a question posed to Narantuyaa by another vulgar man (the one she’s having an affair with): “Ever thought of starring in a porn movie?” Narantuyaa ponders what the woman might do once she reads it:

The young woman might throw away the note with an unperturbed half smile, or else she might find it disturbing, or she might find it inviting. Whatever passed through her mind would remain unknown to Narantuyaa: life was supposed to be so; what mattered was that she had made an effort.

While this is not how this story ends, it is how many of the stories end in Wednesday’s Child: the characters drift off, unknown to us, as “life was supposed to be so.” More certainty would be “ridiculous,” or at least sanguine. Instead, the emotional resonance of the stories in this collection comes largely from the observation of the characters themselves, rather than any neat plot points.

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Not all the stories deal with grief so directly. In “On The Street Where You Live,” the mother of an autistic son, Jude, tries to convince him it’s worth opening up to the world as she tries to convince herself against his arguments to the contrary. In “A Small Flame,” a woman returning to China after years abroad remembers a teacher she had been obsessed with as a child, and mourns the loss of the connection they never had. The longest story in the collection, “Such Common Life,” follows Dr. Ditmus and her live-in caretaker Ida’s conversations and recollections from their lives, as Dr. Ditmus lives out her twilight years. Yet even in these stories without a direct loss, it’s Li’s gentle hand that asks us to look closer. Joy Williams once wrote that the first rule of short stories was to [depict] a “clean clear surface with much disturbance below,” and I can think of no better way of describing Li’s work here.

That’s not to say that all the characters are crafted with the same level of “clear surfaces” through which to view their depths. Li’s male characters, in particular, tend to serve more as antagonistic forces for her female protagonists—Jullian and Jude notwithstanding. In the story “Hello, Goodbye,” a woman offers a half-hearted defense of the man she married to her friend who never liked him: “If you’d grown up in Pigeon Blanc, Indiana, you’d think a bully with money was ten times better than a bully without money.” But he’s simply a bully all the same. There’s also a number of overly-contemporary elements, such as a few mentions of the COVID-19 pandemic and some anxiety about recent elections and Donald Trump, which takes away from the near-timeless feel most of the stories have.

Wednesday’s Child may be familiar ground for Li, but she’s once again shown us why she’s remained such a treasured guide to the lands of grief over the past twenty-plus years. Stories in Wednesday’s Child often fade out more than they offer anything definite, but the story that brings the collection to a close contains a dramatic shift: it’s the only story in the book to use “I.” The narrator describes her relationship with a hair-cutter, Lily, whose life story first fascinates the narrator before it all becomes a bit too real. On contemplating leaving, she says, “Finding another salon would be like starting a new relationship, forging a new friendship, while all I wanted was to keep the unknown, good or bad, at a distance. Forget life, real or unreal. What I wanted to do was to raise my children as a good mother should. In those years, the days seemed long, never-ending, and sometimes I felt impatient for my children to grow up, and then felt guilty for my impatience.” In the next paragraph, she reveals her son died sometime after that. She thinks about a photo Lily shows her of her childhood, the ache she feels at the future that could have been, the same ache she feels for her son.

Wednesday’s Child
By Yiyun Li
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published September 5, 2023

Ian J. Battaglia

Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.

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