Joy Powell is an out of control seventeen-year-old, severely trying the patience of her exasperated parents, Andrew, a pastor, and Gloria. After struggling with infertility, the Powells traveled to Eastern China in 1990 to adopt a beautiful little girl who had been named Lily at birth. Lily’s father demanded that her mother abort their fourth child, rather than risk being again imprisoned and tortured. But she refused, and their older daughters convinced their parents that they would volunteer regularly at the orphanage where Lily would be placed until the proud Chang family could reclaim her and bring her home. Sadly, ten long years passed during which their mother died. Kai, the second oldest, earned her medical degree at Harvard University and returned home upon learning of her mother’s death — just in time to watch from afar as an American couple placed Lily in a waiting van and drove away with her as the sadistic orphanage director grinned in triumph.
Seven years later, Kai finally secured her mother’s medical records. A highly respected renal specialist practicing in Boston, Kai is virtually certain that her mother died from polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a hereditary disorder treatable only by dialysis and an eventual transplant. With the help of a private investigator, Kai has learned Lily’s new identity and arranged to travel to the Powells’ Texas home to meet with and convince them that Lily, known as Joy, must be tested to see if she carries the genetic markers for PKD.
As her mother lay dying, she made Kai promise to “reclaim Lily,” and Kai is determined to restore honor to the Chang family by doing just that. But first, she must overcome Gloria’s distrust and win over the young woman with purple hair, goth clothing, profanity-laden speech, and a very rebellious attitude whose life may be in peril.
Patty Lacy deftly explores the complications that often arise when two cultures clash in the most intimate and influential manner imaginable: the adoption of a child from another country by Americans. At seventeen, Joy Powell has no idea where she truly belongs. Vague memories of the years she spent in the Chinese orphanage compete with her feelings of being an outcast in a community whose citizens are unable to discern between Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants, and openly discriminate, harass, and degrade those who are different from themselves. Joy’s problems are compounded by the fact that her mother, Gloria, loves her more than her own life, but has thus far been incapable of penetrating the wall of silence Joy has erected to protect herself. Unaware of the mistreatment and ostracism Joy has endured both at school and from church members, Gloria feels like a failure as a parent, her own insecurities and self-doubts compounding her own frustration.
Just as Kai and the Powells are meeting so that Kai can explain the medical concerns that have brought her to Texas, they learn that Joy has been arrested for shoplifting. Reeking of cigarette smoke and using language that Kai believes shames and dishonors the Chang family, Joy fully displays the tough facade she has developed in order to hide her true feelings. But soon enough, the two sisters must learn to trust one another as a tornado strikes the juvenile detention center. Soon Joy is shadowing Kai as she attends to those injured by flying glass and furnishings, and discovers that like her older sister she is drawn to healing. The tenuous first inklings of a bond forming between them bring the promise of a full-fledged relationship that might transform Joy and allow Kai to fulfill the promise she made to their mother. The Powells are also swayed by both Joy’s reaction to Kai and the changes that immediately become visible in Joy’s demeanor, attitude, and outlook. Of course, there are more complications looming for the newly-formed family.
Lacy’s tale of a family torn apart in the late 1960’s — the parents imprisoned and their three oldest daughters left to survive on their own — is compelling and engrossing. Kai’s childhood informed the manner in which she views the world and her determination to restore the family’s honor inspires her to keep searching for Lily until she locates her. Kai vowed to become a doctor at the tender age of eleven and grew up believing in the fates, rather than a supreme, all-knowing deity. But life in America and her relationship with a handsome Christian cardiologist, David, have caused her to question the foundations of her life. In Lacy’s capable hands, Kai’s doubts and uncertainties are fully tested when she faces her greatest-ever challenge. Kai seeks the peace that passes all understanding, but despite her education and intellect, it evades her.
Numerous plot twists, some more predictable than others, propel the story forward, although it bogs down in places because of the lengthy and numerous interior dialogues of Lacy’s characters. For those who have parented teenagers, Joy’s transformation will seem too easily achieved, too neatly accomplished, and the character of Gloria is never fully developed. Although Lacy intersperses Gloria’s numerous interludes of self-recrimination and second-guessing with clues about Gloria’s unhappy childhood and troubled relationship with her father, the details are never revealed, rendering Gloria an enigma, particularly in contrast to the stereotypically perfect Andrew.
Lacy can be forgiven those missteps, however, because on the whole, Reclaiming Lily is an entertaining and thought-provoking exploration of what it means to create and be a contributing member of a family unit. Through her characters’ experiences, Lacy demonstrates that a family can be forged by diverse individuals under unimaginable circumstances. The two primary characters, Kai and Joy, are endearing and sympathetic, and readers will find themselves hoping both find the success and happiness they deserve, restoring honor and pride to the Chang family.