“Wednesday’s Child” by Yiyun Li

Li Yiyun Li Yiyun

At the end of Yiyun Li’s newest book, Wednesday’s Child, she explains that she wrote the stories in this collection—most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker—over the last fourteen years. It was also during this time that she lost her father, teenage son, mentor, and close friend. “They live among these pages now,” she explains. 

The title story begins at the Amsterdam train station as a American woman named Rosalie learns that her train has been delayed due to a suicide at the Rotterdam station earlier that morning. Rosalie is on a trip alone, after the suicide of her teenage daughter, Marcie. Rosalie reflects that her own mother blamed her for Marcie’s death. Li’s prose elicits the many emotions that anyone in a fraught mother-daughter relationship could recognize.


Rosalie’s mother, not long before her final decline, had stated her verdict on Marcie’s death. “I call it karma,” she said to Rosalie. What she meant was that, because Rosalie had refused to love her own mother wholeheartedly, it was a fitting punishment for Rosalie to lose a child and feel the greater pain of a more absolute abandonment. Rosalie had not replied; since Marcie’s death she had been anticipating such a remark.


Another mother comes into the picture after Rosalie finally boards her train for Brussels. A woman in her compartment goes into labor and Rosalie assists. Rosalie reflects on how Marcie was born on a Wednesday and now this woman on the train will also have a Wednesday’s child, a reference to the poem that begins: “Monday’s child is fair of face/Tuesday’s child is full of grace/Wednesday’s child is full of woe…”.


Wednesday's Child: Stories, Yiyun Li (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 2023; Fourth Estate, September 2023)
Wednesday’s Child: Stories, Yiyun Li (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 2023; Fourth Estate, September 2023)

Although few of the stories are set in Li’s native China, most include Asian characters. In “A Sheltered Woman”, a young woman suffers from postpartum depression and hands over the care of her infant son to her confinement nurse, Auntie Mei. The young mother, who goes by the English name of Chanel, is upset that her husband left their home in the US for a business trip to China when their son was only several days old. Chanel might be a sheltered woman, alone in her room while Auntie Mei takes over the care of her baby, but Auntie Mei reflects back on her own youth and early adult years in China when she was confined at home, taking care of her mother and grandmother.


Auntie Mei had not thought of leaving home until the two women died, her mother first and then her grandmother. They had been sheltered from worldly reproach by their peculiarities when alive; in death, they took with them their habitat, and left nothing to anchor Auntie Mei. A marriage offer, arranged by the distant cousin of a man in Queen, New York, had been accepted without hesitation: in a new country, her grandmother and her mother would cease to be legendary.


Auntie Mei became a confinement nurse after her husband died. She no longer needed to worry about paying bills as she moved from household to household every thirty days, the time in which her Chinese American charges sheltered at home after the birth of their babies.

Li’s stories are sad and many center around mother characters. In another, “Let Mothers Doubt”, a Mongolian family in California mourns the loss of their university-aged son after he dies from an overdose. The mother wonders if mothers in general are doomed to failure because children want what their parents cannot give to them. Her daughter Narantuyaa has other ideas.


Children want what the world can’t give, Narantuyaa thought, but it’s a mother’s fate to doubt herself, so let mothers doubt.


It’s this doubt that runs through Li’s stories and forms her characters, most of whom grapple with how to make the most of their circumstances.

Each story here is as strong as the other; it’s impossible to pick favorites. Li’s debut almost twenty years ago was also a story collection and she’s also published another in between her many novels. Although each of the stories in Wednesday’s Child can be found online through the publications in which they were originally published, it’s fortunate for readers that they have come together in this collection, perhaps the most compelling yet.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.