At 81, Lilia Liska is a crabby presence at her assisted living center, offering tart replies to her neighbors’ small kindnesses. But Lilia, the main character in Yiyun Li’s new novel, Must I Go, has a secret obsession: rereading the self-published diaries of Roland Bouley, the man she had a brief affair with 65 years ago. Roland never knew that he was the father of Lilia’s first child, Lucy, nor that Lucy killed herself at age 26.
Lilia bears some resemblance to Elizabeth Strout’s indelible character Olive Kitteridge. As with Olive’s story, suicide is a theme; Lilia returns repeatedly to Lucy’s death, understanding as little now as she did then. Like Olive, Lilia walled off her heart long ago and is now trying to make sense of her long life, her loves and losses.
The novel’s first two sections follow Lilia in close third person through both the present and past, when as a 16-year-old she met the charismatic Roland. The novel’s third section switches gears to explore Roland’s diary, annotated with Lilia’s notes for granddaughter Katherine (daughter of Lucy, granddaughter of Roland). This turns the novel into something both old-fashioned—an epistolary novel, more or less—and experimental, a kind of collage. Lilia’s notes speculate about details left unsaid, about Roland’s practical wife, Hetty, and his longtime lover, Sidelle. Her notes are often funny, taking the self-important Roland down a peg: “Let’s forgive Roland his bluffing. Let’s enjoy it. . . . He wore his lies like tailored suits.” This is a novel to sink into, knowing that you may not remember all the extended family members Lilia mentions, nor all the names Roland notes in his diary entries from the 1940s.
The author of three other novels, two story collections and a memoir, Li was born and raised in pre-capitalist Beijing, came to the U.S. for graduate school in immunology and later earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s a wide-ranging writer who can brighten dark themes with humor and hope.