Yiyun Li’s beautiful but boring novel Kinder than Solitude follows Boyang, Moran, and Ruyu, three childhood friends who spend a formative summer together in late-80’s Beijing. Separated after their neighbor Shaoai gets mysteriously poisoned, they come back into contact decades later.
Boyang, the boy, is the least developed of the three characters, and is being raised by relatives as his parents teach at a university a bus ride away. Moran, a lifelong friend of his, is so hopeful and kind as to be naïve. Ruyu is a transplant from provincial China. Adopted and raised by joyless Catholic sisters, she is reserved, holding the mortal world in contempt as she follows God’s plan for her.
Ruyu and Moran move to America as adults, marrying, divorcing, and never gaining a sense of belonging or permanence. Boyang attains a similar isolation staying in China. All three see benefits to their solitude—it gives Moran “an odd sense of virginal freedom”—and try to maintain it.
Li spends much of the novel describing characters and their thoughts, and flashing back to the events that shaped them. She does so effectively, giving the novel its strongest moments.
However, Kinder than Solitude is sunk by its glut of aphorisms. Some of the aphorisms are not inherently boring, but used to excess, these constant leaps from the personal to the universal shift the novel’s focus from the characters’ lives to generalizations about the human condition. After Moran recalls her marriage to her ex-husband, Li tells the reader that
Time is the flimsiest surface; to believe in the solidity of one moment till one’s foot touches the next moment, equally trustworthy, is like dream-walking while expecting the world to rearrange itself into a fairy-tale path. Nothing destroys a livable life more completely than unfounded hope.
These are pretty sentences. Appearing every page or so, however, they grow tedious and redundant.
When exposition is devoted to specific things, such as Ruyu and Moran’s struggle to relate with Americans, Ruyu’s drift away from her Catholic faith, or Shaoai’s justification of her political dissent at the expense of her future prospects, it’s much more compelling.
When Ruyu recalls working in a laboratory, for example, “she suspected that in her colleagues’ eyes, she, like the instrument she managed, was a well-tuned machine—a machine that, once trusted, could easily be forgotten.” Li doesn’t strive for political statements, but that sentence hits the model minority stereotype head-on.
Likewise, Li follows Ruyu as she starts thinking of god not as the force that gives her life meaning but as an invention of her guardians. Her doubt starts as questions—“what if [god], like her parents, found little merit in her to keep her?”—and blooms into full-fledged doubt, though she keeps the coldness her Catholicism gave her.
Such redeeming features, however, are vastly outnumbered by the sentences about the flimsiness of time or how “loneliness is as delusive a belief in the pertinence of the world as is love.” Had Li used aphorisms as sparingly as her more specific musings, Kinder than Solitude could have been a much better novel.