In the book's longest story, "Kindness"--perhaps really a novella--a middle-aged woman reminisces about her childhood and her compulsory year of military service. In both phases of her life, an older woman tried to reach out to her--Professor Shan who read to her from English novels and an Army lieutenant who sees her unhappiness and wants to help--but the narrator resisted their efforts and has ended up a solitary math teacher with virtually no human connections. She remembers once feeling that she was in love with a man who lived downstairs from Professor Shan, but their relationship consisted only of chitchat spoken in the yard or on the stairs. When he moved away, she stopped visiting Professor Shan.
Loneliness and loss are themes throughout the stories, which feature male and female characters, from youth to old age. In the story "Prison" an immigrant couple's teenage daughter has been killed in a car accident. They decide to have another child, using a surrogate in their native China. The wife, Yilan chooses a woman who seems to have the spark the other women who applied for the "position" lacked; Yilan plans to live with the surrogate in China until the baby is born. In a matter of weeks, however, "the world of trust and love they had built together was crushed, and they would remain each other's prisoners for as long as they stayed under the same roof."
Teacher Fei, of "A Man Like Him," is also in a prison--he is caring for his aging, ill mother. He escapes to the nearby Internet cafe whenever he can. There, he becomes interested in a site posted by a girl who is trying to shame her unfaithful father into returning to her mother. Mr. Fei tracks down the father, with whom he feels a bond because he, too, had a brush with sexual infamy.
Li's stories are dark, and they are written in a rather flat tone. Thus, I found myself observing the characters rather than becoming engaged with them--and perhaps that is a good thing. As is often the case when I read short stories, I found myself saying "hunh?" at the end of several stories. Nonetheless, the stories did keep me reading,
They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.
(This is the last line of the last story, and I think it's lovely and summative.)