Death would be kinder than solitude.
I loved Yiyun Li's previous book, The Vagrants (5 stars), but I just didn't click with The Kindness of Solitude in the same way. I found this latest book to be a much denser read, with too much philosophising for my taste. It was also billed as a mystery around who was responsible for the poisoning that is central to the novel, but there was no twist, we knew early on who had committed the crime.
Ruyu is an orphan, who was very lucky to be adopted by the two ladies on whose doorstep she was left. She is less fortunate that they seem to be emotionally stunted and raise her to be the same way. She is sent to Beijing at the age of fifteen, to live with a family and go to a school that recognises her talents for the accordion.
The family's daughter is several years older and they must share a bed in the small house in the communal quadrangle. There she meets Moran and Boyang, who are of a similar age to her, and they all go to school together.
'The poisoning' is alluded to early on in the book and we gradually gather various facts pertaining to this incident. Meanwhile there are frequent diversions both back and forward in time, which are well handled, if somewhat erratic. This event was a turning point in the lives of everyone involved and Moran and Ruyu emigrate to America, while Boyang remains in Beijing.
A large part of the book is spent with these characters as adults. They all seem to be struggling to find a place in the world, failing at both marriages and friendships.
For me, there was too much about how the characters felt and why they felt that way. I enjoyed the book most when the narrative took over from the psychological analysis. However, I did enjoy the image of the communal quadrangle, with all the families working together as a unit, sharing what little they had.
I would highly recommend The Vagrants, but The Kindness of Solitude was disappointing in comparison.