“Harmless Like You” centers on the lives of a mother, who is an artist, and her son, an art dealer. Neither are particularly likable characters and both freely admit to their weirdness.
The story opens in present-day Berlin where Jay, a new father, has come in search of his mother, Yuki. Long settled in Germany, Yuki is mildly successful, having abandoned her husband and Jay when he was a toddler, fleeing family life and America to start over as an artist in Europe.
When Jay’s father, a saintly sort of character, dies in a car accident, leaving the family home to his estranged Japan-born wife, Jay, as executor of his will, is then forced to seek out his mother in Berlin, setting the scene for a reckoning of sorts between them.
Buchanan spends the bulk of the novel fleshing out Yuki, the only child of a Japanese couple based in New York. When her parents return to Tokyo, Yuki opts to stay and finish out high school. Her guardians are an artsy, flighty, prone-to-fighting family. Yuki is a misfit — her dream is to be an artist, but love, relationships and a fair amount of self-loathing get in the way.
Perhaps because Yuki dominates the book, her character is fuller than that of her son, a pathetic figure who spends an inordinate amount of time fretting about his deformed and sickly cat.
For both Yuki and Jay, art is a refuge and an identity. “Harmless Like You” is an uneven effort; Buchanan is capable of master strokes, but also of color by numbers.