“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.

Harmless Like You, by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan.
308 pages
SCEPTRE, Fiction.

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.


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