Central Places by Delia Cai review – a return to one’s roots
Elia Cai is a writer for Vanity Fair, but her first novel is not the typical witty and comical story one might expect. It stands out from other novels, such as Monica Heisey’s Really Good, Actually, which portray women struggling with their lives in a humorous way. However, this is what makes Elia’s novel charming. It tells the simple story of Audrey Zhou, a 27-year-old whose parents were married in Wuhan before moving to the United States and settling in Hickory Grove, Peoria, Illinois. Audrey is engaged to a seemingly perfect white photographer named Ben, whose wealthy parents have offered to buy the couple a home.
Audrey and Ben are going back to Audrey’s childhood home for Christmas. However, Audrey has transformed herself during her time in New York and the tension in the book arises from her attempts to reconcile her past self as a reserved teenager with her current identity as a content and accomplished professional. While this may seem mundane, the fluidity of Cai’s writing elevates this ordinary narrative into a compelling read.
Audrey’s mom is brief and critical to the extent of being comical, even labeling her daughter’s high-school crush, Kyle, as a man of “low caliber”. This portrayal never gets exaggerated, but there is an intensely confining aspect to the relationship between mother and daughter, especially when Audrey reveals that her mother used to refer to her as “xin gan”, the Mandarin term for darling which literally means “my heart and liver”.
Similar to the protagonist in Celine Song’s recent movie Past Lives, Audrey faces a decision between her past crush and her current partner. The contrast in the film is between Audrey’s childhood friend in South Korea and her husband in New York. Audrey is forced to choose between Kyle, her high school crush from Peoria, and her fiancé in New York. She refers to her move away from her hometown as a “migration,” and even her mother comes to realize that it was wrong to criticize Audrey for leaving, as she had also done the same thing.
Ben, the ideal boyfriend, is not fully developed as a character by Cai. His seemingly unflappable charm is not fully explored, leaving readers unsure if they are meant to believe in his extraordinary qualities or if Cai is subtly suggesting that he is not genuine. Audrey sums up his allure by saying, “That’s what I fell in love with, his ability to smooth out rough edges and take care of everything for me.”
Central Places may not set the world alight, but there is strength in Cai’s choice of a heroine who is resolutely not flailing around amusingly, whatever problems she may have. This is also a novel that made me realise how rare and refreshing it is to read an account in mainstream fiction of what it’s like to grow up with Chinese parents in small-town America, where the greatest compliment you can be paid is that you don’t “even look that Asian”.