book Must I go by yiyun li with a cup of coffee and flowers on a table

Reading: “Must I go” by Yiyun Li


“Lilia decided to leave a record for Katherine and Iola. No, she wasn’t thinking of Molly’s accusation. Lilia had no interest in acquitting herself of unfounded charges. But Katherine and Iola deserved something more than confusion. They couldn’t just have stories from Molly.”

Spoiler (also: general SPOILER ALERT): Katherine and Iola (Lilia’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter) will be better off with stories from Molly. Because Lilia’s ‘record’ only adds to any sort of confusion possible. But let us start from the beginning. Which is actually quite strong—as is the ending. It’s the roughly 200 pages in the middle that are expendable. At least parts of it. 

Must I Go is my first book by Yiyun Li and I’m not sure if I will read another one by this author. After taking a few glimpses at other (prestigious) reviews I’m not sure if I’m just too lowbrow to ‘get’ it or if my reading of this novel is acceptable … We’ll see. 

“Must I read all this?”

As stated before, I could have done without two-thirds of the book. Mainly because they add no real meaning, nothing of interest to the story. What starts as promising retrospection on Lilia’s life turns out to be nothing more than an average meandering tale of a woman who tries to create meaning where probably none ever existed. 

In the beginning, a 3rd person narrator introduces us to 81-year-old Lilia Liska, who is living in a retirement home. Through cutbacks we get to know her family and the other main protagonist of the book, her much older lover and father of her first child, the 40-something misunderstood genius and wannabe-author Roland Bouley. From their conversations and Lilia’s actions, we find out that Lilia has always seen herself as being someone special, wanting to get away from her family’s farm and lead a different life. 

Meeting her first husband Gilbert during her affair with Roland—probably shortly before she fell pregnant with her oldest daughter Lucy—she sees in him little more than a boy her age, dreaming big. But he will become the most important man in her life, the one who loves and marries her even though she is carrying someone else’s child and still thinking about someone else’s body. The first thing Gilbert knows, the last he never finds out. They share a family, a house, a life together. After Gilbert’s death from cancer, Lilia will marry two more times, surviving both men. 

One could think all this is important. One is wrong. The most important issue in this book is Roland Bouley and Lilia’s teenage infatuation with him, something she obviously never overcame, otherwise this book would be a) shorter or b) more about her and her family and less about a man whose existence is just utterly bland, uninteresting, and—apart from the fact that unbeknownst to him he is the father of Lilia’s first child Lucy—irrelevant. 

Promising triviality in three parts

Divided into three parts, the first two sections—as described above—deliver a strong and promising start. Introducing us to the main characters—Lilia, her late husbands, her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as Roland—it creates excitement and curiosity, we want to find out which secrets and stories Lilia wants to share with her granddaughter and great-granddaughter. Unfortunately, at least for me, this does not become clear. Maybe that’s because Lilia likes to tell stories the same way Roland tells them:

“Roland did not mention that he was married, nor that his ostensible motivation was to meet a few rare-book dealers in San Francisco, though the real reason was to take a break from his wife and recover from what he called a ‘bout of melancholy.’All this Lilia pieced together later, though only partially, from Roland’s diary. What did happen he had not recorded in detail. Roland could be a pain. So much of what mattered was missing. Not one of the stories he told was the full version.” 

Well, this already brings us to the third and main part of the book, Lilia’s reading and commentary of Roland’s published diaries. This part of the book starts on page 109 and continues to its ending on page 348. That’s a long section, especially when considering that it is full of dull characters: Sidelle Ogden, his older lover, portrayed as the poster girl of the noncommittal pseudo-philosophical flapper; Hetty, his wife, who is of course much too simple for his immense genius; several members of his family (dead and alive) who will never understand him the way his sensitive intellect needs to be understood …

The repetitive storyline follows the decline of someone who once saw himself as the next James Joyce, only to realize that he may not even make it to a nice little Edgar Rice Burroughs. And that’s just Roland’s diary. Adding to this are Lilia’s comments on those diary entries, comparing herself to Sidelle, to Hetty, to Roland, interpreting more than knowing, worse, hardly knowing anything at all. But this seems to escape her musings, since she sees herself as the one person who truly knows Roland Bouley…and I cannot help but ask myself WHY? They had a brief affair, not even a full-blown romance …

It may be because of their daughter Lucy and the fact that she committed suicide at age 27, leaving behind her daughter Katherine, then a baby, to be raised by her parents, Lilia and Gilbert. Thus, Lilia looks for traces of melancholy, depression, suicidal tendencies in Roland’s writing—is Lucy’s death his fault, genetically speaking? Or at least I assume she does, because her intensive reading of his trivial musings would not make sense otherwise. Maybe (Probably!) I’m just not romantic enough (I know I’m not) and that’s why I don’t get all this fuzzing about a minor character in one’s life. 

the blurb of the book Must i go by yiyun Li for you to read
For your reference—the blurb

Lucy, the daughter who killed herself and left behind her babydaughter Katherine—Lucy is another mystery in this book. The blurb promises the revelation of “long-held secrets of her life, and she returns inexorably to memories of her daughter Lucy.” Well, the book does most definitely not keep this promise. Lucy is mentioned a few times, but never positively. At best, Lilia is understanding of her eldest child. At best. However, most of the time she describes Lucy’s flaws, issues, the mistakes she makes. There’s no secret in sight, not to mention any revelations. This is a woman lamenting over the diaries of an old lover who happens to be the father of her eldest child. The problem child, the one that killed herself. Which leaves her traumatized, overwhelmed, angry. At least that’s what I assume may be an underlying issue of all this lamenting, of all this going back in time.  

Also, ignore the blurb that says Lilia adds “her own rather different version of events” to Roland’s diary. That is impossible because apart from Roland she knows not one single person mentioned in his writing. She adds her interpretations, her clumsy comparisons of herself to Sidelle, how similar they were, two “hard, tough women”. Mind you, she never met Sidelle, only knows her, sees her through Roland’s partly juvenile male gaze. Same goes for his wife Hetty. 

Conclusion: Zip it (or skip it, dear reader)

We (assuming you may have read some of my other reviews) know by now that patience is a virtue I don’t have. I like a story to progress, to reveal some meaning, to educate, entertain, enlighten, anything but not to frustrate and bore me. So while I really enjoyed the first roughly 100 pages, I had a hard time seeing any development, meaning, anything in the third part. 

Once again, I may be too lowbrow to ‘get it.’ This wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last. Maybe my lack of patience makes me careless enough to miss important points in the story that don’t reveal themselves easily. So I may miss deeper meanings while looking for some substance and obvious messages. Maybe. 

Maybe this just wasn’t the right book for me. But don’t let this deter you from giving it a try. And if you read it, tell me what you think of it 🙂

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care! 

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