[Memoir Review] Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah

memoir review Mar 15, 2022

Falling Leaves is a memoir that chronicles the life of Chinese-American author and physician Adeline Yen Mah and her coming of age in war-torn, Communist China, a “society that kept girls in emotional chains.” This review discusses the memoir writing techniques Yen Mah employs in Falling Leaves.

Memoir as a Genre

There are two classifications for memoir: memoir as a genre and memoir as strategy. Falling Leaves is a chronological narrative (an autobiography)—also known as memoir as genre.

Many memoirs have been written with China’s 20th-century political and cultural revolutions as the backdrop (Last Boat out of Shanghai, Snow Falling in Spring, and the Cowshed, to name a few). Most focus on the horrors peasants suffered. Adeline’s memoir presents a fresh narrative of an affluent Chinese family; she also explores the clash of the West and East in her household.

Adeline’s memoir focuses on the emotional abuse she endured at the hands of her Eurasian stepmother, and it grapples with how family members upheld and eschewed common Chinese cultural practices. Her grandfather, for instance, is a devout Buddhist who upheld most common Chinese practices, and her great aunt broke traditional cultural norms, such as the practice of binding one’s feet. This memoir sheds light on how Western influence would affect Chinese culture throughout the 20th-century, and how Westernization influence Adeline’s upbringing, education, and how she came to view herself.

The main objective of this memoir is to share Adeline’s horrible abuse, the loneliness of a child blamed for the death of her mother, and her fierce determination to find independence. And while this memoir is classified as memoir as genre, theme plays an important role. For example, Adeline struggles with her devotion to a culture that honors family after suffering abuse and neglect by various family members. Her memoir also contains an overarching message of persevering love. 

Adeline’s story is, ultimately, triumphant as she gains her independence, becomes a physician in obstetrics, and finds her own worth in life—through the success of her career, and the family she builds in the United States.

What can we learn from Falling Leaves about memoir writing?

Hook Your Reader—And Hook ‘Em Fast

The prologue to Falling Leaves immediately hooks the reader. It opens with the funeral of Adeline’s father and the reading of his will. It concludes with the shocking news that her father—an affluent and successful businessman—died with no money.

The story—the hook of the entire book—piques the reader’s curiosity. How did Father lose his money? Why did the children obey their stepmother and refuse to peruse the rest of the will? Would Adeline have received a share of the estate if her father still had money? 

The answers to these questions are revealed throughout the memoir. And to keep the reader reading, some of the most pressing  questions aren’t answered until the very end.

Withholding information at the beginning is a strategic way to build suspense that maintains the reader’s attention throughout the book.

Leave ‘em Hanging

Once the tension is released, the story is over whether or not you’re done telling the story.

Memoirs must have tension to pull readers through the end of the book.

 Adeline uses two common tactics for creating tension at the end of each chapter: a cliffhanger and foreshadowing.

A cliffhanger ends the chapter with suspense. Usually, it will set a grim tone that leaves the reader with questions and a need for answers. 

The first cliffhanger in Falling Leaves is well placed after three expository chapters explaining Chinese culture of the time and Adeline’s familial history. The reader needs a reason to keep reading, and the final paragraph of Chapter 3 succeeds in doing just that.

This is how the chapter ends:

“My mother died two weeks after my birth, with five doctors at her bedside. She was only thirty years old and I have no idea what she looked like. I have never seen her photograph” (Yen Mah, 24).

This moment—a subtle cliffhanger—leaves the reader wondering why Adeline has never seen a picture of her mother.

Another example of a well-timed cliffhanger concludes Chapter 8. The reader has spent the past two, long chapters learning about the lonely, forlorn life Adeline suffered as a child. The story names abuse after abuse and the reader needs some sort of relief, a reason to keep reading. This chapter concludes with a foreboding anecdote of Adeline’s stepmother’s unusual kindness one afternoon and the threat that Adeline will be taken to an orphanage.

What will happen to Adeline at the orphanage? Is this the end of her familial relationships? Will her grandfather or Aunt Baba stop this?

The reader won’t find out until the next chapter.

Taper Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing, when an author foretells a future event, is used consistently throughout the first half of Falling Leaves. It tapers off in the second half of the book once the chapters become faster paced and contain more shocking information that don’t require the tension of foreshadowing.

The earlier chapters of Falling Leaves foreshadow two things: the emotional abuse Adeline will suffer throughout most of her life, and the betrayal she will endure at the end of the book. For example, the conclusion to Chapter 5 foreshadows the coming abuse and manipulation: “The funeral marked the end of an era. We did not know it, but the carefree years of childhood were over” (Yen Mah, 41).

The first half of the memoir also foreshadows the ultimate betrayal Adeline will face. The reader learns about Adeline’s desire to please her family, her desire to feel loved and wanted throughout the beginning chapters. And while the anecdotes carry the innocent hope of a child, they also contain an ominous tone, a look into the narcissism and cruelty of some of her family members. Each anecdote forewarns of Adeline’s futile attempts to gain her family’s acceptance.

When written well, foreshadowing will warn your reader of the future to come, but it is not always a guarantee. It sets your reader on edge. They recognize these ominous cues but are rooting for your character to succeed. Falling Leaves succeeds in alluding to the betrayals to come, while also encouraging the reader to hope that betrayal won’t occur.

Create a Full Circle

There are different ways to end a story well and Falling Leaves concludes with the Bookend Model—a return to a metaphor employed at the beginning of the book. Adeline concludes her prologue with the metaphor “falling leaves return to their roots,” and she relies on this same metaphor to conclude her overall memoir.

The first two chapters of Falling Leaves introduce Aunt Baba, the woman whom Adeline’s mother entrusted to care for Adeline upon her death. Aunt Baba would become Adeline’s greatest supporter, the voice of encouragement and love when Adeline had no other. Aunt Baba supported Adeline’s quest for independence and her journey to find worth in herself.

Falling Leaves concludes with the death of Aunt Baba in Shanghai (where Adeline grew up) and Adeline’s realization that she was always worthy of being loved. As Adeline puts it, her story has come full circle, or “falling leaves return to their roots.” She may have adapted to Western society and taken residence in the United States, but her heritage will always remain important to her.

A well-written story with insight to the political and cultural turmoil of China throughout the 20th-century, Falling Leaves carries a beautiful message of courage and the will to survive in the face of adversity. While Adeline’s life may be an anomaly to most Americans, her message resounds with any reader. And it encourages the reader to keep fighting, even when life seems too grim.