Lilia Liska...is a fascinating character, filled with resentment and regret, but compelling enough that the reader is unable to look away ... Lilia is a true original, and Li wisely lets her speak for herself through the bulk of the book as she riffs on Roland’s writing. Li does a wonderful job of letting readers decide how much of what Lilia says is true grit, and how much is the bravado of a proud but wounded woman. Must I Go is a triumph of a novel about how we navigate grief that seems unmanageable.
... a nostalgic, even rather fond, view of the lusty womanizers of yesteryear ... The novel moves between the illicit excitement of Lilia’s assignations and her heartbreak over Lucy’s death, and Ms. Li wisely refuses to contrive any resolution between the two moods. Lilia is grief-stricken yet resolutely without regrets, and the seeming contradiction informs her unforgettably ornery and impolitic view of the world. Must I Go is most bracing in its refusal to apologize for its follies, to perform any acts of literary penance.
Where [Li's] previous book is stripped down, a bundle of exposed nerves, Must I Go is upholstered with the nested narratives, intricate back stories and details of a historical novel. For all their differences, their concerns are knotted together. They reach into realms that the author and characters feel are unspeakable ... They are among the loneliest books I’ve ever read—if they are merely books. At times they seem more like ruins; the chipped sentences and broken structures let you see all the devastated, discarded certainties ... Little happens, but I’ve always found the openness, the near shapelessness of Li’s work to be part of its beauty. Her characters are never coerced; they are patiently observed, they are allowed to live, allowed to disappoint ... The new book is bloated and unwieldy, however; it lacks the blunt power of its predecessor, which was stark and swift, flensed of artifice. There is a strange feeling of watching Li retreating into a form and narrative structure she has outgrown and outpaced.
Li’s intricate nesting of Lilia’s memories produces a stop-start rhythm that’s sometimes painfully short on momentum, as Lilia casts a withering eye over fellow characters from five generations ... it feels as if we’re eavesdropping, but not in a way that’s especially productive in any dramatic sense. Lilia’s caustic temperament buoys us through the novel’s eddies ... Reading Must I Go sometimes resembles what it must be like to stumble across a cache of personal papers: there’s life here, in spades, but more shape, more compromise, narratively speaking, might have lent more spark. Novels built on memory often fall back sooner or later on suspense, however veiled. That applies here, too, but there are limits to how decently it can be resolved ... If, ultimately, light isn’t shed, perhaps that says less about the book’s flaws than about the trap of viewing suicide as a mystery to solve—an undertaking that may account for several of the challenges here, for writer as well as reader.
Though Must I Go contains the sketchy architecture of an intergenerational, historical novel, its rooms and stories remain more conceptual than actual. Characters act as analogs for one another based on shared status as widow and widower, orphan and bereaved parent. Husbands and wives are easily swapped. The defiant workings of memory are more important than memories themselves. Lives are annotated rather than recorded. Aphorisms, and the tendency of Li’s characters to offer universal truths, are frequently exposed by Lilia’s sharp pen as platitudinal wish-fulfillment ... the range and interpolation of points, from psychological to geopolitical, makes a difficult and messy novel a thought-provoking, worthwhile read ... The diaries end up reading like an exercise: Why do the daily particulars of Roland’s young adult life matter to elderly Lilia? What, between the lines, is she striving to work out? Some playful ambiguity enlivens this set-up. At times, the diaries seem entirely fabricated by Lilia, who is (reluctantly) participating in a memoir workshop with her fellow old-timers ... What sounds like comfort, especially to the ears of readers and writers, actually expresses the book’s—and Li’s—deep ambivalence between writing and its illusion of immortality and the unspeakable suffering of going on living. But Li’s wisdom is this: we don’t own the ambivalence.
While Li’s prose is exquisite after a precise fashion, it never blows its own unflashy horn ... Lilia’s voice sounds like a parody of Li’s own characteristically laser-guided prose, only with the author’s humane reserve replaced by a pugnacious, judgmental, if world-weary wit ... Her own novel’s relationship to the truth transcends anyone’s personal interest or any one version of the truth, including that of the writer and the reader. The story doesn’t want to be remembered any more than it wants to be seen, but by seeing and remembering in its own way stands the best chance of achieving both ... this closely observed, slyly comic and quietly gripping story will do just fine for our difficult present.
Lilia bears some resemblance to Elizabeth Strout’s indelible character Olive Kitteridge ... both old-fashioned—an epistolary novel, more or less—and experimental, a kind of collage ... Lilia's notes...are often funny, taking the self-important Roland down a peg ... Li [is]...a wide-ranging writer who can brighten dark themes with humor and hope.
Most poignantly, Must I Go can be read as an extension of Li's 2019 semi-autobiographical novel, Where Reasons End ... Lilia's extended argument with her deceased daughter also exposes the inadequacy of language to express difficult, 'unspeakable' subjects. She resists grief's metaphor of a broken heart since it fails to capture the immensity of a mother's loss ... In juxtaposing Lucy's suicide with Roland's self-centered narrative, Li also raises a provocative question: Is suicide just an underdeveloped story that requires editorial intervention? ... While Li may not be religious, her contemplative novel brings to mind John Donne's Meditation XVII — Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, or what's commonly known as For Whom the Bell Tolls. Like Donne's devotional on the intimacy of death that connects all human beings, Must I Go affirms the complex bonds of divergent characters who learn to navigate through loss. The novel also serves as a literary equivalent of Schrödinger's cat: In recapturing lost time through Roland's diary, Lilia can exist in an infinite loop between ending and beginning.
Must I Go can be read, at least in part, as an attempt to dramatise that insight about the way we sift and shape the detritus of the past, fashioning what we call 'memories' out of those scraps of 'evidence' ... Lilia’s annotations, often wrapped in morsels of homespun wisdom for her granddaughter’s benefit...is akin to the kind of edifying or improving slogans you’d find on a fridge magnet ... In having Lilia fill out some of the silences and omissions in Roland’s story, Li strays from what is surely the emotional core of the novel ... And if the tone of the novel is sometimes uncertain, the structure too is unwieldy, with the hectic swapping of points of view and serpentine chronology—though this is arguably faithful to the way a mind trawling the past for nuggets of the truth would work. Compared to its lean and costive predecessor, Must I Go is baggy and meandering.
Of the two voices, Roland’s is the less compelling and convincing. He is cold, acquisitive and, by his own account, intellectual and literary; to match this, his diaries needed to be a feat of voice, to sound like The Portrait of a Lady’s Gilbert Osmond, looter of words as well of artworks and people; or perhaps, as he immerses himself in wartime Britain, to take on the orotund tones of the political diarist Alan Clark. But Bouley writes in the same 21st-century style as the rest of the book: no speech marks, few semicolons, short sentences and contemporary vocabulary choices...The style is so limpid it could almost be translation, and in fact the more we read of this American/European hero, the more Chinese he begins to seem ... The spring of a western-style plot, that Lucy is Roland’s daughter, is told to us almost at once. The romantic heart of the novel – who does Lilia truly love? – is also brushed past or told by inference ... Family members (Lilia’s younger sisters, her ambitious daughter Molly) have a way of abruptly emerging from the shadows bearing their complete and fascinating life stories then exiting again without comment. Other characters (two of Lilia’s husbands, for example) remain barely developed. There are sudden irruptions of historical drama ... Lilia’s stories, though, as the one above shows, are salty, funny, well observed, and have an ironic, tragic edge. As she arranges them into a dense, crowded Chinese tapestry of characters, personal myths and history, her humanity and largeness of mind are also revealed. And as all those bleak edges and ironic gaps are laid together, so a pulled thread of grief is revealed in the weave: the unsolvable mystery of why Lucy died. Li demonstrates in this haunting novel that there is more than one way to tell the story of a person’s becoming, and that multiple narratives can work just as well as singular ones to help us understand the nature of grief.
The juxtaposition of Lilia’s wizened cynicism with the pathos of Roland’s conflicted disposition makes for a compelling diptych, but Li’s prose is blighted by her excessive recourse to aphoristic metaphors ... Unforgivably, Li endows Roland with the same tic. He remarks: 'Self-doubt is like truffles. I wouldn’t mind flavouring my days with a sprinkle, but too much wouldn’t do.' The same might very well be said of these pungent little flourishes.
In [Li's] first title with a non-Asian-specific cast (as if creating some semblance of distance), an adult child’s suicide propels a multilevel narrative that sprawls through relationships, perspectives, and responses ... Once more, Li confronts unbearable grief and claims agency.
... the book has nothing in common with Li’s most recent work: it is much longer, more diffuse and less driven than her last two books, and unfortunately less successful ... The form of the book is unusual ... This conceit, easier to understand in the reading than to explain, sounds intriguing: think of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where a luckless poet has his epic work ruined by a mad academic’s footnotes. But Must I Go is not a book of literary electricity; it’s altogether slower and more subdued ... The structure of the story [...] gives it a meandering lack of narrative drive, so the book feels longer than its 350 pages, and muddy rather than clear ... Yet, perhaps because of the length or the immersion in detail, I found that I missed both Roland and Lilia when the book was over. Perhaps this story of a grief that lies too deep for tears sank somehow into me after all.
Although priding herself on her independence and hardness, [Lilia's] reflections reveal abiding grief, loneliness, and regret, which she refuses to confront ... Lilia’s bitterness masks vulnerability that too rarely emerges from Li’s restrained narrative ... A sensitive portrait of a wounded woman.
Li...writes with relentless seriousness about a woman taking stock of her past while living in a nursing home ... the meandering story is laden with tortuous doses of Lilia’s self-reflection and too-clever bon mots. Lucy’s suicide and the toll it takes on Lilia’s first marriage and Bouley’s lifelong romance with the enigmatic poet Sidelle Ogden provide the story’s emotional anchors, but more often than not, with Lilia and Bouley’s stories confined to remembrances of the past, the love, longing, and loss that they recount fails to materialize for the reader. Li adeptly captures the dreamlike, bittersweet qualities of memory, but misses the color and substance that makes that remembrance worthwhile.