The Better Mother

Publisher: Vintage Canada
From a master of family dynamics comes this vivid tale of two misfits who find each other while stumbling toward their own true identities. In 1958, eight-year-old Danny Lim has been sent to buy cigarettes for his father, when he realizes that he has lost the money. Frantic, he rushes through Vancouver's Chinatown and behind a nightclub, where he sees Miss Val, a long-time burlesque dancer. Danny is enraptured with her sequined garters and silk robe, and Val, touched by his fascination, gives him a pack of cigarettes and her silk belt. Years later, Danny spends his days working as a wedding photographer and his nights cruising Stanley Park, far away from the home where his parents and sister live. He realizes that the key to understanding himself and his family lies in his connection to Miss Val, and he is determined to find her. Before she became the Siamese Kitten, a major player on the North American circuit, Miss Val was Valerie Nealy, a feisty girl growing up in a rundown house beside the Fraser River. But to find the stardom she thought she wanted, she had to make a series of seemingly irrevocable decisions. Set mostly during an unseasonably hot summer in Vancouver in 1982 when HIV/AIDS was spreading rapidly, The Better Mother brims with undeniable tragedy, but resounds with the power of friendship, change and truth. It will cement Jen Sookfong Lee's reputation as one of this country's finest young novelists.

From the Hardcover edition.


Danny is eight years old and skinny, a boy who fingers his kneecaps every night, wondering if the sharp bones will pierce through his skin if he gets any taller. It’s summertime, and his black hair––thick and straight and glued in place with three generous dollops of Brylcreem–– shines in the...
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FINALIST 2012 – City of Vancouver Book Award

“A complex and layered second novel. . . . An ambitious and engaging read with a wholly original premise and characters you have likely yet to meet in Canadian fiction. . . .  The Better Mother has more twists and turns than any back cover promotional copy could possibly describe, and its pacing is taut and clips along at a breathless speed that will keep you reading and wondering what’s coming next. . . . Straight-ahead page-turning brilliance.”
—Zoe Whittall, National Post
“Virtually oozing with sensuous and romantic longing. . . . A beautiful and tragic representation of vanity, disillusionment and hope. . . . With remarkable facility, Lee breathes life into two characters who lead lives of relative anonymity.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
“Lee is a fine storyteller, conjuring the histories of her amiable characters and a Vancouver that remains today in the collective memory of its long-time residents. More than a nostalgic montage of times and places, The Better Mother is an evocative portrait of two lonely hearts and their synchronized longings.”
—The Georgia Straight
“A poignant story of loss, truth and the power of friendship.”

The Better Mother brilliantly invites us to see the forgotten lives that have populated our cities––their vulnerabilities, their luminous and indomitable energy.”
—David Chariandy, author of Soucouyant
The Better Mother is a pitch-perfect portrait of the city I grew up in. But perhaps more importantly it is a skillful observation of the parts of us that often refuse to be seen. With great tenderness and poetry, Lee pulls aside the masks we wear to hide our raw emotions even while we yearn for the compassion of others.”
—Billie Livingston, author of Greedy Little Eyes