Mae Anderson
New York-based reporter covering small business.

Review: Searching for belonging in ‘Central Places’

January 30, 2023 GMT
This cover image released by Ballantine shows "Central Places" by Delia Cai. (Ballantine via AP)
This cover image released by Ballantine shows "Central Places" by Delia Cai. (Ballantine via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — “Central Places,” by Delia Cai (Ballantine)

Delia Cai’s debut novel has all the trappings of a breezy rom-com: Audrey, a successful 27-year-old New Yorker with a glamorous job in ad sales and handsome photojournalist fiancé, returns home to the Midwest to be confronted with old tensions with family and friends she thought she’d left in her past -- including an unrequited high school crush.

But Cai’s novel is decidedly not a rom-com. At the heart of the novel is the complicated relationship Audrey has with her mother, who left behind everything she had in China when Audrey’s father was accepted to a U.S. graduate school, and then gave up dreams of a career when Audrey was born. Adult Audrey realizes how hard that must have been, but at home she still falls back into old childhood patterns of bristling at her mother’s disapproving asides and hyper-criticalness whenever they’re in the same room.


Returning home for the first time in eight years, Audrey begins to question whether she really had to shed everything from her past to become a “success.” And she wonders if her relationship with white, wealthy, Manhattan-bred Ben is as perfect as she thought. Her description of why she loves him – his ability to “hold the possibilities of life up like a complicated garment that he would always help me get zipped into, and all I had to do is hold my arms out” – sounds alarmingly like a straitjacket.

With a compassionate lens, Cai’s novel details how disorienting it can be as a young adult to try to meld together the pieces of past and present to build a place for yourself that finally feels like home.