Leigh Chen Sanders is certain her mother turned into a bird after committing suicide.
Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time, trying to find her mother in the form of a giant red bird, uncovering family secrets, and forging a relationship with her grandparents, all while aware of her half Asian and half white identity.
The Astonishing Color of After deals with both Leigh’s past and present through intertwining real and magic.
This was such a beautiful read and I had a great time reading.
Throughout the story, Leigh embarks on the journey of accepting her mother’s suicide through confronting the past. Pan does this through mixing a very subtle vein of magic in through the red bird and how it leaves feathers and sends different mementos to Leigh.
I think Pan is an amazing writer and all her work to making this book the best it could be was really clear. Her writing style is beautiful and it’s not overly flowery or too simplified, which made me really enjoy this.
The whole story had so many layers besides just Leigh’s mother’s suicide, but also her relationship with her best friend Axel, her desire to pursue art as a career, and her relationship with her father.
I enjoyed how Leigh described things in colors as her personal quirk, although I have seen this used before in Caraval so it ended up being a little “huh” for me, if that makes sense? It worked with this story more than it did in Caraval, though, because Leigh’s an artist.
Also, I just really appreciate in general how this is about a Taiwanese-American teen! Like hello! *waves from over here* I can personally affirm that Pan does a great job of being accurate on the culture (please do not make me eat chòudòufu it is not worth it just go eat regular tofu thank u) and not just the Taiwanese culture, but also how it feels to be an Asian American teen and those comments you get that relate to being Asian. *side eyes*
I don’t think Pan’s purpose is to educate the reader about Taiwanese culture–that’s not her job, and it gets kind of awkward when you say this? I saw this great thread on Twitter about #OwnVoices writers and “educating” white readers. You can read more about the topic here. But Pan portrays the culture really accurately.
What I wasn’t too much of a fan of was just how much of this story was in the past. I wasn’t actually sure what I was getting into when I started this book, but I was expecting a more present-grounded story and there were a lot of flashbacks and stories from the past in this story.
It felt like the stories from the past almost overshadowed that of Leigh’s present and that if you broke the story up, the majority of the story was from the past and the minority was from the present.
It is also a little long, but that didn’t bother me as it was really engrossing and was paced super well, so I didn’t feel like it lagged anywhere. The subtle magic and all the layers in the story helped make everything keep going and never slow down.
The Astonishing Color of After wasn’t as intense or emotionally provocative as I was expecting, but it is very, very beautiful. Leigh’s journey is a very true one and how she learns to accept what happens and move on is something I think many readers can relate to. I would definitely recommend this to all lovers of contemporary as there’s so much amazing character development in this novel!
Thank you to my local library and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for providing me with an (uncatalogued) advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review!
Have you read The Astonishing Color of After? What did you think?