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.
TW: suicide, mental illness
I went into this book with almost no idea of what it was about, and I think that is a great way to go into this book! I didn't even really know about the existence of the book until I saw it everywhere on social media around the day of its release and because the reviews seemed to be all positive I requested it from the library. I am so happy I read this book!
The characters were amazing. I loved Leigh so much because of how determined she was. I felt like protecting her every single time she felt in over her head because you can tell she's in shock because of her mom's suicide. But despite her overall shock she pushes through and needs to find the bird. Her grandparents were absolutely adorable and I loved them both. Despite the language barrier (Leigh knows a little Chinese but not enough at first to have a full conversation) you can see the love and connection she has with them as she spends time with them. I also really enjoyed seeing Leigh's relationship with her father grow throughout the story. I also enjoyed her friendship with Axel. They bond over art and I thought their friendship was really sweet. Axel seemed like a good friend for Leigh.
The plot is obviously super unique, you know that straight away after reading the synopsis about a girl who's lost her mom to suicide but thinks her mom is a bird. But it wasn't weird. I mean it was, and her father and other characters told her that. But I believed her, despite not knowing if she was a reliable narrator or not. I was completely swept up in Leigh's mission to find her mom, the bird, and I couldn't put the book down. It's almost 500 pages and I read it in a day. I assumed I'd be reading it for a few days but I could not put it down.
With a story that involves topics such as suicide and mental illness, it can get heavy. And it was heavy and heartbreaking. But there was a lot of hope, family, and love that is weaved through the story that I never felt like it was too heavy. The discussion of depression and mental illness is so well done and respectful. There are also other important topics touched on in this story, one being Leigh being biracial (half Asian, half white) and how that affects her both in America and in Taiwan. In America she is seen as "exotic" and "other" and in Taiwan she was treated as foreign or "other" by strangers. Another topic discussed is following a dream despite your parents expectations for you and your career. Leigh wants to be an artist, but her father thinks it's not practical and more of a hobby.
The writing was beautiful, but not super flowery like I expected when it comes to a magical realism story. All the other magical realism books I've read it always feels like a dream when I am reading them. Like everything is a bit fuzzy and things are happening that you can't fully wrap your head around. But in The Astonishing Color of After, it didn't feel like a dream. The delicious descriptions of the Asian food mixed with a lot of the beautiful imagery but instead of feeling like a dream it felt like it's own little world but also we get to see the story imagined in a beautiful Taiwanese setting. I think the writing was perfect.
Overall, I highly recommend this book to everyone. It's such a beautiful story of loss, grief, love, mental illness, and we get so much of the Taiwanese culture. However, I don't think the romance was needed. It's barely in the story, so it didn't bug me too much, but it felt unnecessary. Like I said above, I liked Axel, but I didn't need them to become a thing. I would have been fine with them just being friends. I think their conflict of her feeling too guilty around him because she was with him during the same time her mother committed suicide would have been enough conflict between them to have a similar story arc and I would have enjoyed it more than it also having romantic elements.