Review of ‘Central Places’ by Delia Cai


Milan Kundera once described dizziness as a condition of those whose purpose in life is “something higher.” Dizziness, he writes, “is the voice of the emptiness below us that seduces and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.” A dizzying impulse of this kind lurks beneath the surface of Delia Cai’s debut novel ‘Central Places’.

Cai’s protagonist, Audrey Zhou, a small-town valedictorian now living in New York, brings Ben, her white fiancé from Upper Manhattan, home for the holidays – to Hickory Grove, a town of 1,300 in sleepy central Illinois . The book opens with the awkward pageantry of meeting the parents. Audrey quickly burns herself out trying to make sure Ben is comfortable and that her disapproving mother and suspiciously good-natured father don’t scare off the man of her dreams. The visit ends in a series of mishaps that leave her wondering if she’s ready to get married at all. Unwilling or unable to allay Audrey’s fears, Ben, a photojournalist, flies to California to document wildfires that are starting to make headlines. wander Hickory Grove like a ghost. Stuck at a crossroads, Audrey realizes she can either accept the life her fiancé has been promised, isolated in Williamsburg with their $20 matcha lattes and hummus plates, or blaze a path back to the nostalgic landscape of cornfields, churches, and malls where she grew up. .

As we learn, people in Hickory Grove attribute Audrey’s success in New York to her sharp focus and killer ambition, and during her stay she feels guilty and ashamed of the fruits of that ambition. “You were kind of terrifying in school,” says Kyle. ‘You were like that real Always.” While this premise easily resembles that of movies like “Sweet Home Alabama” and the holiday affair described in Taylor Swift’s “Tis the Damn Season,” Cai’s novel takes a different approach to the city girl-country boy trope. With fast-paced flying prose “Central Places” digs deeper than the average romantic comedy into the social anxieties that underlie the characters that populate such stories: the insecure Type A heroine, the blissfully oblivious child of privilege, and the laid-back stoner of a small town Cai, a correspondent for Vanity Fair, accomplishes this in part through the wavering tone of Audrey’s narration, which swings wildly between hypervigilante disgust—to both the rural and Chinese-American aspects of her past—and self-sabotaging melancholy. thanks to her guilt and shame, Audrey is increasingly tempted, as Kundera would say, to plunge back into the The charms of the city she fought tooth and nail to escape.

I read Cai’s novel in late 2022, at a time when the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority was pushing for the overturning of affirmative action at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Conversations surrounding the hearings revealed once again the extent to which the deeply disturbing model-minority myth has shaped Asian Americans’ views of assimilation, achievement and class mobility. In many ways, Audrey’s predicament gets to the heart of these national conversations. According to her mother – one of the novel’s most complicated and lavishly observed characters – the creed of ambition is not only justified but barely negotiable, and nothing Audrey has accomplished in her 27 years seems satisfying. However, it is also true that Audrey’s self-reliance and success have distanced her from her former peers. Seen through this lens, both Kyle’s casual remarks and the city’s perception of one of its only Asian-American residents have disturbing undertones.

The nu-historical context of the novel’s narrative adds another layer to this dynamic. Set in 2017, “Central Places” reads like a time capsule, a snapshot of America’s political climate at a point of transition. Beneath the love triangle and small-town drama, the characters Cai portrays are collectively reeling from the 2016 election. Audrey’s friends in New York kick themselves as they try to figure out “what everyone had misunderstood about the people from places like Hickory Grove.” Meanwhile, in Hickory Grove, racists, like the one Audrey encounters at a bar during the holidays, are empowered enough to insult her and Kyle just as the pair are about to confess their feelings for each other.

Over the course of the novel, we begin to recognize the alienation Audrey now faces in her hometown. She’s been gone for eight years, missing weddings, funerals, and reunions as the country has changed irrevocably. That Audrey might choose to continue self-isolating in her bubble in Williamsburg seems as much a matter of self-protection as it is of pride. However, those who never left Hickory Grove don’t see it that way. They view Audrey’s escape from the Midwest as a evasion of political responsibility. “Last Fall, three kids overdosed,” her former best friend, Kristen, tells her. “Some people’s parents lost their jobs when Caterpillar moved that big factory after the strike. … You weren’t even here during the election. You have not seen what it is like.”

The question at the heart of Cai’s novel about the quarter-life crisis is this: What do people like Audrey owe to the small towns where they grew up, the towns that made them feel lonely and misunderstood, but which, for what it’s worth, failed to realize their ambitions? take away? seriously? Could someone who has built a life and identity like Audrey’s in New York survive falling back into a community of 1,300 in 2017, not to mention the pandemic-ravaged 2023? What would this form of survival look like, and what would it offer those illustrating the problems of “places like Hickory Grove”?

As Audrey contemplates surrendering to vertigo, returning to the Midwest to care for her aging parents, and falling back into the arms of her high school crush, these questions take on an ethical urgency. Cai unpacks every layer of complexity with intelligence and sensitivity. In doing so, she paints a sobering portrait of small-town America, not as a place where ambitious and conscientious people have to flee, but as a place of reckoning – between past and present, stereotype and reality, and the differences between those who call it home. .

Jenny Wu is a fiction writer, critic and independent curator.

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Review of ‘Central Places’ by Delia Cai

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