As one grows older, foreseeing fewer and fewer years ahead, reflection becomes a natural inclination. An honest review of one’s life can be a difficult task. Along with the great moments (marriages, births, etc.), come the darker ones. Perhaps, something important went unnoticed, or a bad decision led to disastrous consequences. Infidelity, divorce, family estrangement, and death-these constitute the darker sides of the human experience. Although, in a general sense, these aren’t unique occurrences, how we individually choose to navigate them, is. In Yiyun Li’s Must I Go, 81 year old Lilia Liska from Benicia, California is ready to take that deep dive into the past. In the process, she will affirm her unwavering sense of self, as well as, provide insight on how to negotiate the more complicated aspects of life. Lilia does all of this with a biting sense of humor and an unrelenting adherence to honesty. Two qualities that make a successful pairing.
It all begins with an extended memoir writing seminar, that is offered to the residents of Bayside Garden, a senior living community where Lilia resides. The purpose is for the residents to document their lives. The final result being a written personal history that they can leave behind for their children and grandchildren. Most of the residents are excited about participating. But not Lilia. To her, it’s a self-satisfying and ridiculous project, reeking of sentimentalism. Nope, nope, she cannot abide. However, a tense discussion with one of her daughters, Molly, during the Thanksgiving holiday, leads to a change of heart. Molly challenges Lilia’s perception of past events, and implies that her style of parenting may have played a part in the death of Lilia’s oldest child, Lucy. This implication triggers a desire in Lilia to evaluate and defend her past. And she doesn’t need a seminar to do it. On her own, she begins to document the history of her life as a thrice-married, thrice-widowed, mother of five. Whereas, the other residents are writing their memoirs for all of their descendents, Lilia is writing hers for two people, in particular: Katherine, Lilia’s granddaughter (and the daughter of Lucy), and Iola, Lilia’s great-granddaughter. In piecing her memoir together, Lilia includes the published diaries of Roland Bouley. Roland was an older, mysterious gentleman that Lilia met at the age of 16 and had a brief affair with. Although their relationship was fleeting, Roland has had a deep impact on Lilia’s life in more ways than can be imagined. His diary is an essential component to this gift Lilia intends to pass on. Lilia’s forthrightness gives the narrative it’s backbone, and her humor smooths out some of the sharper edges. She can deliver a verbal punch, and seems to find most people to be lacking in one way or another. But when it comes to Roland, and his voluminous diary entries, she’s more forgiving, even when his ego runs amok. This sensitivity is mirrored in the memorialization of her deceased daughter, Lucy; a woman who suffered in ways Lilia was ill-equipped to handle at the time. As the project begins to build, an unusual and complex family portrait starts to take shape. One that is entertaining, thought-provoking, and unyielding. A remarkable novel, with an unforgettable female lead character.