The Astonishing Color of After is a beautiful, surreal book. It follows Leigh Chen Sanders, a biracial Taiwanese-American girl whose mother has recently died by suicide. Half of the book is set in the present, mostly in Taiwan, but a significant part of it is told through flashbacks.
This is a contemporary story about grief and mental illness with magical elements: there are people turning into birds, ghosts and “magical” flashbacks. The supernatural elements in this book are tied to Taiwanese Buddhist death practices.
This book was magical in a way I had never seen before, and I loved every moment of it – especially the parts that had to do with Feng.
I expected many good things from this book, but it being a quick read wasn’t one of them. And yet.
I read it while in a slump. The last seven books I read were all either one, two or three stars, and I DNFed three of them. This book almost reaches 500 pages and I usually prefer contemporaries to be around 300, but I read this in less than two days and loved all of it. It’s that good.
I have had really good luck with books about mental illness lately, but I had never been able to find one that explicitly stated that romantic love doesn’t in any way change mental illness. Leigh’s mom died because of depression, but that didn’t mean she didn’t love her husband.
Do you think people can be in love but also unhappy?”
“Yes,” said Axel […] “Definitely.”
The “romance cures mental illness” is such a common, often subtle, ugly trope. Maybe books which openly state that the main character got better because of the romance aren’t that common, but how many books have I read in which the main character gets better when she get a boyfriend? And there are people who think that depression disappears if you have a significant other, so it means a lot to me to see this book say the opposite explicitly.
I thought this was going to be a heavy book. Since it’s about grief and suicide, I expected it to be very sad – and it’s not that it was happy, but it never got difficult to read. It was sad and it was hopeful enough to be readable. It wasn’t… emotionally flat like many sad books I’ve read this year, in which the main character experiences nothing but grief. Here, not only the characters felt realistic, they felt real – which is something that “weird” books often fail at (I love weird, and this is not my favorite weird book, but this one of the most human of all of them).
I also really liked Leigh. Reading about her reconnecting with her mother’s side of the family and her culture was wonderful. I really appreciate every book set in present day that doesn’t take place in the USA, and most of this book is set in Taiwan. There are also many food descriptions and I loved all of them.
Leigh is also an artist. I have read many books about main characters who are, and I loved how here that aspect was never forgotten. Art is important to Leigh and is important to the plot and to the narration – she describes emotions through color, even though I’m not sure she’s actually synesthesic. (But I am! I love reading about it, and this is close enough.)
There’s only one thing I didn’t love about The Astonishing Color of After. While I did like that this was a story about family before romance, the romance was really underdeveloped and the miscommunication felt forced. I liked that the love interest was also biracial (Puerto Rican/Filipino) but the romance was probably the aspect I liked the least about this book. It was just there, there was nothing wrong with it, but I wanted more from a book I loved.
My rating: ★★★★¾