The first sentence of “Red Thread of Fate” is as riveting a first sentence as I’ve ever read. “She was on the phone with her husband when he died.” What?! You can’t stop reading after that kind of first sentence. At the heart of Lyn Liao Butler’s newest novel is the concept that our family is what and who we make it. It might be those who are born into our family, but often our family includes those who are adopted (and they come with two and four legs), those we informally “adopt” as honorary family members, and close friends we trust and love. And while Butler’s book focuses on family, and how Tam, the main character, reacts when she is confronted with an apparent betrayal by her husband and his cousin, she also presents, to a lesser extent, the smaller betrayals we might perpetrate by, for example, not listening to our parents and their stories, by not stopping to listen to those we love, or by thinking only of ourselves and how things affect us.
Butler deftly makes us care about Tam, whose husband dies at the start of the story, so that we want to keep reading. We want to know her story, and even when we realize that Tam is by no means perfect, we like her and want her to succeed. We also want to know exactly what happened to cause Tony, her husband, and his cousin Mia to get hit by a truck while waiting to cross a street in busy New York City. Did the driver hit them on purpose? Why was Tony there? What was he hiding from her?
We also wonder what will happen to Angela, Mia’s daughter. And there’s Charlie, the medically fragile boy that Tony and Tam were set to adopt from China, where Tony was born. Will Tam still want to take on that responsibility as a single parent? Tam is a very flawed character, and much of her misfortune can be laid directly at her own doorstep; however, Tony and Mia were extremely flawed people, as well. Much of Tam’s heartache can be laid directly at Mia’s feet, but Butler helps us understand Mia’s motivation through diary entries she’s left for Angela. And while we are frustrated with Tam for her reticence, her refusal to connect with her mother, and her insecurity, she redeems herself through her selfless actions after the deaths of Tony and Mia.
In fact, part of the beauty of Butler’s plot and her careful creation of Tam’s character is how we see her grow and come into her own in spite of—or perhaps because of—the trauma she’s endured. Butler shared that although she and Tam are very different in terms of personality, she drew on her own personal realization about the value of her parents’ stories to show how Tam, who had not been interested in her mother’s history, came to respect her mother’s views when she finally opened up and listened. She realized that her mother had wisdom to share, and that her advice came from a place of love. Butler also draws from personal experience as she describes how important having a companion animal can be. Although Butler didn’t grow up with dogs, she dearly loves her rescues, and she fosters whenever she can; in the story, a dog helps provide the unconditional love that every child craves.
There are so many ways in which Butler raises questions and shares information that this book would be a book club choice that might keep members talking more than gossiping, and that’s no small feat. Do the Chinese really view the Taiwanese as we see the characters in the book discuss? Even her distinction regarding the language differences in China and Taiwan, which many readers, including this one, might not be aware of, is fascinating. From the food to the celebrations, from superstitions to the treatment of orphans, be prepared to immerse yourself in a different culture as you navigate the pages of “Red Thread of Fate.” You’ll love every minute of it.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.