The plot of “Kinder Than Solitude” is a kind of murder mystery. As it opens in Beijing, Boyang is making funeral arrangements for Shaoai, a family friend who has just died after a chemical poisoning 21 years earlier left her physically and cognitively disabled. Was Shaoai trying to kill herself, or was she killed by Ruyu, the timid, depressed orphan girl adopted into the family? And how much was that depression stoked by Moran, another friend?
Those questions give the novel its narrative shape, but they’re also largely beside the point. For Li, the whodunit is less interesting than how the poisoning emotionally straitjacketed everybody. Boyang is a cynical womanizer who feels that “this world, like many people in it, inevitably treats a man better when he has little kindness to spare for it.” Ruyu lives in the Bay Area as a part-time housekeeper for a wealthy woman whose neuroses over the slightest problems give Ruyu herself an “exemption from participating in life.” In Massachusetts, Moran is a workaday chemist who strives to keep her life in just-so order, “a savage routine that cleansed her life to sterility.”
Yet this is not a woe-is-them tale: Li doesn’t pass judgment on her characters for their hyper-austere responses to a childhood calamity.