The Leftovers: A Novel That Will Be Missed

Op-Ed: Clinging to old classics can go hand in hand with banning books

It’s a good thing that The Leftovers is not a new book. It’s a good thing that the novel — about a little-known group of nuns, on the run after the disappearance of their order — has aged remarkably well, not least because we know a thing or two about its author, Amy Tan. She was born in 1930 to parents who had fled religious persecution in China. She studied business, met her husband and their two children in college, taught for a while in California, and then returned to her native province of Taiwan to begin her writing career.

But even if this book doesn’t date or, conversely, does date, it still is a classic, and one that I’m sure readers will miss as it goes out of print. While it’s good when a book becomes so well known that its sequel can’t be released, it’s worse when we forget how to read it.

That said, Tan’s most famous novel — or, more accurately, the novel that launched her as a celebrated literary talent — won’t be seen as a classic until it’s gone out of print. It doesn’t mean it won’t be read. Tan wrote that she couldn’t “write about someone who was dead until I had no time to write about them,” and so the novel was set in the past. And, in a way, it’s kind of a love story: a man falls in love with a living woman, who, unbeknownst to the man, is a nun, who flees Taiwan and decides to remain in America by running away from her parents’ church, and then, against all odds, she finds herself on a farm, in a small town, with her mother, and she has no idea who she’s supposed to be.

Here’s a hint: She’s not a nun anymore.

I should stop here. No, the novel is still unfinished, and more importantly, Tan’s work is still unfinished. It’s only now that The Leftovers has become known that it is well-written, well-researched and well-written without a lot of unnecessary fanfare — just the quiet pride of a writer who was told she couldn’t tell her story that she could.

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