In Karin Lin-Greenberg’s debut novel, You Are Here, arranged into sections according to an academic year, starting in September and ending in June, a high school senior named Maria tells her best friend that she enjoys working at a shopping mall in their hometown of Albany, New York, because she feels “it’s a great place to study humanity.” Lin-Greenberg is a captivating storyteller and deploys the shopping mall setting to show that no matter one’s background, people are more alike than different.
Jackson Huang, a nine year-old boy and his mother Tina spend most of their time at the mall, where she cuts hair at a failing beauty salon and he does his homework—and sweeps hair—after school and on the weekends. The mall itself is on its last legs and the salon would have closed long ago were it not for Tina, the only stylist left. Jackson is shy at school, but curious at home and at the mall. He befriends Maria, an aspiring actress and high school student who dresses up as a chicken at the Chickety Chix fast food restaurant in the mall’s food court. Jackson dreams of becoming a magician and Maria has agreed to be his assistant for his school talent show.
Jackson and Tina’s are not defined by their Chinese-American background, although Tina sometimes tells Jackson stories she learned as a girl.
And there was another story Tina wanted to tell Jackson, one Tina’s mother told her about Su Wu, a diplomat during the Han Dynasty, who was captured and held by enemies for many years. He told his captors he’d attached a message to the foot of a goose, revealing where he was being held. Not wanting to be found, his captors released him before the goose could deliver the message. Tina couldn’t remember all the details of this story, knew she only remembered it halfway and maybe got some details wrong, but by that point her mother was no longer speaking to her, and she couldn’t call home to ask.
Tina and her parents don’t speak because she left them in New York City to move to Albany. Her parents had loftier dreams for her, but Tina wanted to study art. Then she got pregnant and put her dreams of art school on hold so she could earn enough money to support herself and Jackson.
Other characters in the story also don’t live up to others’ expectations. Kevin manages a chain bookstore in the mall and has been “working” on his PhD dissertation for years while his wife, a young Black poet, holds down an adjunct teaching job at a local university. Gwen, his wife, dreams of the two of them—and their twin children—moving to a college town where they can both teach in the English Department. But Kevin doesn’t have the heart to tell Gwen he is no longer interested in academia—or finishing his dissertation.
Ro is the elderly widowed next door neighbor of Gwen and Kevin, and also one of Tina’s last regular customers at the salon. For most of her life, Ro has been close-minded and never made an effort to get to know people who don’t look like her. But with Tina, and especially young Jackson, Ro starts to open her mind and her heart. She gives Jackson some of her late husband’s most treasured possessions, including an old camera.
With this cast of characters, Lin-Greenberg alternates the point of view in each of the sections all while weaving in the other characters to keep the story moving. Tragedy strikes the mall and suddenly worries like finishing a PhD and pleasing one’s parents seem trivial. The community comes together in ways it hasn’t before.
Lin-Greenberg is a professor at a small liberal arts college in the Albany area and has obviously gone into academics. But her story is a universal one about finding joy in one’s interests. And it’s also a reminder that people can—and do—change. In a world that seems fraught with division, this simple message is perhaps the one needed the most now.