Delia Cai’s “Central Places” details a long-absent daughter returning to her rural Illinois hometown. Its unremarkable Hallmark plotline belies an exploration of pretension and positionality that resonates with an emerging body of Asian Americana storytelling. Dislocation. Miscommunication. Mothers and Daughters.
Career woman Audrey Zhou has had limited contact with her family and her rural, Midwestern hometown for eight years. When she left for college and work, she cut ties with her parents, an old flame and her childhood best friend. When her father reports health problems, she reluctantly catches the holiday flight out of LGA to spend Christmas in Hickory Grove, Ill. Along to meet her family is her metropolitan fiancé Ben.
When Audrey’s quiet, golf-loving father picks them up from O’Hare, Audrey is jittery with nerves, anticipating her mother’s judgment. Her stress is compounded when she reunites with Kyle, her old crush, and is reminded of her pre-New York life she had been trying to forget. Over the course of the holiday season, Audrey manages interactions with her difficult mother, resists Kyle’s laid-back allure, and parses through her feelings regarding Ben.
I was initially hesitant to read Cai’s debut. The inside jacket promises a cheesy plotline with the tagline: “a young woman’s stifling past and uncertain future collide when she brings her white fiancé to meet her Chinese immigrant parents.” The ever-present ghoul of commercialized racial trauma warded me away. Only my ongoing quest for Midwestern fiction by Midwestern authors lured me in.
I’m happy to report that this book dodges those accusations. Instead, it’s more of an almost-Hallmark movie, an homage to Midwest America and yes, a mother-daughter trauma romp.
While Audrey’s race and positionality undergird most of the book — race is the reason for her alienation, her dislike of home and her escape to New York — it is not one of the book’s conflicts. While Audrey is awkward about being Chinese American, her unresolved self-hating tendencies make her character real and tragic. Throughout the book, she avoids other Asian women, citing different reasons, and cringes at her parents’ accents. Despite being 20-something and professionally successful, she is uncomfortable in her identity. She never learns solidarity or finds a community. And that lack of racial resolution gives the book pizazz. Audrey is messy, honest and trying her best. She has too many problems to tackle in 270 pages.
On the Hallmark side, “Central Places” refashions Audrey’s lived experience into the language of romcom tropes. Kyle and Ben form two axes of a love triangle, offering different futures. Kyle is honest and easy-going. While Audrey left the Midwest and never looked back, he made his life in the area. He kept in touch with people from high school and now teaches World History. Ben, on the other hand, epitomizes everything coastal elite — his parents are Columbia professors, his sisters are lawyers and he has the freedom to pursue journalistic photography. When he visits Audrey’s hometown, he does so as a tourist, taking photos of the trappings of working class life. The men represent extremes of the lifestyles Audrey could lead.
The choice is trite but made more exciting by the book’s regional commentary. Cai excels at prop work, recreating geography, locations and types of people well. Cai name drops lifestyle markers — Meijer, railroad apartments, subdivisions, Bushwick — to signal Audrey’s migration home as a transcultural migration.
But it’s hard to see where these facades, these offhanded contextual markers, begin and stop. The book buries the lead too well. The racial commentary, the incessant regional markers, the East Coast-Midwest comparisons are flimsy shells, rabbit holes intended to distract from the gaping wound at the heart of the story. If you focus too much on Audrey’s regional commentary, you can blink and miss Cai’s central conflict. Despite its discussions on race and displacement, “Central Places” is not a story about racial reconciliation or self-love. It’s not even a love story. “Central Places” is only ever concerned with mothers and daughters, fear and shame and poor communication.
I’m divided on how I feel about this book. Reading Cai can be affirming, and I appreciate the author’s facility characterizing regions close to my heart. However, I disagree with Cai’s choice to withhold any meaningful engagement between Audrey and her parents until the final act. The novel is intentional in its plotting, but the denouement left me wanting more — literally anything to ease the tension in my shoulders and the tightness in my heart.
Audrey’s mother and father are mentioned often but are not given space to speak, mirroring how Audrey doesn’t allow her parents to be human. Her hurt, stemming from a lifetime of her mother’s verbal censure and her resentment about being raised in Illinois, prevents her from seeing them clearly. The language barrier between Audrey and her mother, too, is ambiguous and more or less metaphorical. The block in communication, previously attributed to language, is more about willingness to engage.
As a result, the conclusion and final confrontation between mother and daughter feels incomplete; only half of Audrey’s grievances were brought to the table. The two avoid talking through Audrey’s self-image issues, her anxiety and her hurt caused by her mother’s rage and abusive tendencies. Her mother’s explanation that “I wanted you to be afraid, I think. I wanted to teach you to hold on to always hold onto things tightly, because you would always be prepared that way,” seems too small to begin healing the tense relationship.
Cai excelled writing Audrey as the Holden Caulfield for lost late 20-somethings: a bundle of hurt, uncertainty and angst poorly disguised under fatalistic posturing. Audrey’s complex characterization takes center stage. You read this book to resonate with the protagonist. However, if Cai makes any concrete class or racial commentary, it’s incidental and unfocused, a quaint summation and byproduct of her excellent midwest-coastal elite regionalization. Once again, this book is about mothers and daughters, daughters and mothers.
Daily Arts Writer Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.