When we meet Yuki and Jay, the protagonists of Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s sad, well-written debut novel, things aren’t going so well. We first see Yuki in the ’60s, when she’s a teenager. The daughter of expatriate Japanese parents, she is adrift. Having spent most of her life in New York, she feels neither truly American nor Japanese. She moves in with a schoolmate when her parents return to Japan, then bounces from one bad situation to another; she only knows she wants to be an artist and is failing at it.
In 2016, Jay, who owns an art gallery, has just become a father. He is unprepared for fatherhood; his ancient hairless cat is more real to him than his daughter. His own father has just died, and he has to find his father’s widow, who lives in Berlin. Yes, Jay’s father’s widow is Yuki. And yes, she is Jay’s mother and he hasn’t seen her since he was a toddler.
Buchanan’s skill in bringing her characters to life is superb. Yuki joins the growing list of female protagonists who are believable, relatable but not likable. As a teenager she is tragically gormless. The contempt shown her by her school friend/roommate; her years of abuse from Lou, the shiftless poet manqué she moves in with; and her lack of success as an artist—these slights harden her, and she’s almost as mean to her saintly husband, Edison, as Lou was to her. Finally, the desperate Yuki leaves him and their son and flees to the city where ruined artists go to sort themselves out.
Freaked out by the twin shocks of Edison’s death and first-time parenthood, Jay is still capable of a trenchant sense of humor and perspective. He knows that leaving his wife with an infant and booking to Europe with a 17-year-old cat is ridiculous. The reader doesn’t lose hope in him.
Buchanan interrogates the ways pain is paid forward, how one generation repeats the foibles of another so inexorably that they seem inherited through the genes. She also wants the reader to know that the messes, like so many autosomal recessive disorders, are at least partially fixable. Harmless Like You is a lovely debut.