New York City, NY

Going Home Again in "Central Places"

The Fiction Addiction
Central Places(cover art from the publisher)

In Delia Cai's new novel, Central Places, Audrey Zhou is newly engaged and bringing her white fiancé, Ben, home to meet her parents in Hickory Grove, a small town in rural Illinois.  Audrey's kept her NYC life and her small-town, immigrant upbringing entirely separate so far, creating a relatable set of worries.

When Audrey is asked where she's from, no, where she's from, you know, Ben jumps in to say Audrey's a Midwesterner. But really, Audrey spent all her time in Illinois planning to get out of town, and when she left for college, she basically never returned or kept in touch with anyone from her hometown.  I thought this meant she'd outgrown her small town, in the way that Manhattan fiction protags always have, but when they arrive in her hometown, it becomes clear that Audrey has unfinished business with basically everyone.  The characters of Hickory Grove are well-developed, with different lives and perspectives, but a shared view that Audrey was just counting the minutes until she could leave Illinois forever. There's a real small-town feel in the descriptions here, but without the book feeling like the joke's on the Midwest.

In New York, Audrey is a successful sales rep, a job that's equally mystifying to her artistic friend group and to her traditional parents. I liked that Audrey's mother wasn't a Tiger Mom stereotype, but still pushed incredibly hard to Audrey to have a particular type of success, and that sales rep wasn't one of those correct career paths. Even though Audrey was financially self-sufficient (more than that, she supported Ben for a while), and seemed to enjoy her career, that wasn't the kind of success her parents had envisioned.  At the same time, Audrey's childhood as the daughter of a Midwestern engineer doesn't match the immigrant narrative her New York friends expect.

I saw this again and again in this novel -- that there was the Hickory Grove way and an New York way and, in the middle, a mystery to everyone, was Audrey.  Audrey finds herself caught between Kyle, her high school crush, and Ben, her current fiancé. I felt like this was showing the difference between Hickory Grove and New York City, but I found I was on Team Nobody.  I didn't feel like Kyle was the one magic man who fully understood Audrey's soul, he was a perfectly nice small-town guy.  I didn't feel like Ben was an aspirational NYC boyfriend, either, he had the cheerful upbeat personality that comes from being safely wrapped in family money and connections.  Audrey, you can do better! DROP THEM BOTH! 

The overall feeling of the narration is sharp-eyed and clever, with these little descriptive lines so accurately hitting New York creative class and small-town customs, but Audrey herself feels unobservant and kind of drifting through her experiences. While this can  definitely be a realistic part of an adult child returning home, especially with the sort of feelings Audrey has for her hometown and her mother, it's frustrating when a fiction protag seems more acted-upon than active.  So, it's a book I liked a great deal, with a central character who inspired eyerolls in a few places. 

The themes in Central Places are very relatable, with Audrey caught in the pull of her parents' expectations and her fiancé's family, between her childhood and her new life in the city. 

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