54 pages 1 hour read

Emily X. R. Pan

The Astonishing Color of After

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


The Astonishing Color of After, published in 2018, is Emily X.R. Pan’s APALA Honor Award and Walter Honor Award-winning debut young adult fantasy novel. Pan was raised in Illinois by her Taiwanese and Chinese American parents, and closely collaborated with her extended family in Taiwan while researching and writing the novel. Although the novel is not explicitly autobiographical, certain details like Leigh being the only child of a professor and a piano teacher echo the facts of Pan’s own early life. Moreover, Pan also lost a family member to suicide and has witnessed firsthand the effects of depression. In the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Pan emphasizes that “it was important to me that while Leigh’s mother had experienced some terrible things in her life, there wasn’t a reason to explain her having depression” (465).

The novel was widely praised in the media for its treatment of difficult emotional subjects. Critic Meg Medina applauds Pan’s interrogation of “how and why […] we remember events,” as well as her courage in addressing “the awful questions” of who is to blame for a parent’s suicide. (Medina, Meg. “Dark Magic and Other Escapes in These Summer YA Novels.” The New York Times Book Review, 1 June 2018.)

Pan’s continued commitment to young adult fiction is evident in her co-creation of the foreshadowYA.com digital platform, which aims to publish YA short stories from writers of diverse backgrounds. She also co-edited the print anthology Foreshadow: Stories to Celebrate the Magic of Reading and Writing YA.

Plot Summary

The novel opens with Leigh’s statement that her mother turned into a red bird following her suicide, after leaving a note with the crossed-out statement “I want you to remember” (7). Leigh is traumatized by these events and feels that she cannot turn to her best friend Axel because their relationship has become complicated, since she kissed him on the day her mother committed suicide.

When the red bird drops off a box, which contains a letter in Mandarin from Leigh’s maternal grandparents saying that they want to see her after the long family estrangement, Leigh and her father Brian fly to Taipei, Taiwan, the city where Leigh’s mother Dory was born and raised. There, under the guidance of her Chinese grandparents and a mysterious family friend called Feng, Leigh begins to search for Dory in all her favorite places in the city. She also finds Dory at night, when magical incense sticks enable her to travel through time and revisit past chapters of her mother’s life. As the days wear on and Leigh approaches the crucial 49th day after her mother’s death, a day when the deceased is reborn into a new life, according to Buddhist belief, the vision of the red bird becomes fainter. At the same time, Leigh learns that her mother became estranged from her parents due to their hostile reaction to her white American father and to Dory’s sense of guilt surrounding the unexpected death of her sister Jingling.

While she is in Taipei, Leigh also has flashbacks of the events that took place in the two years leading up to her mother’s suicide. She remembers Dory’s escalating depression and her father’s long absences from home, while he was working abroad. During this time, while facing intense anxiety about her mother, Leigh focused on her art and struggled with her romantic feelings for Axel, who was dating another girl, Leanne.

By the 49th day, Leigh realizes that she must let her mother go and accept the fact of her death. She also learns that Feng is the ghost of her mother’s deceased sister Jingling and that she must say goodbye to her too. When she returns to the United States, Leigh foregoes chasing the ghosts of the past to repair her bond with her father and to begin the romantic phase of her relationship with Axel. She also flourishes in her art, winning a competition to display a series of works based on family history and memory in a juvenile art show in Berlin.