Love, Grief, Class, and Cancer: A.H. Kim's “Relative Strangers" reimagines a Jane Austen plot set in modern-day California


A.H. Kim and her book Relative Strangers.

The details of who knows whom, and what happened in their pasts, result in drama in Ann Arbor author A.H. Kim’s retelling of Sense and Sensibility through her new novel, Relative Strangers, set in modern-day California. 

Kim was an attorney and worked at a Fortune 200 company before retiring to write full-time. She raised her family in San Francisco, is a cancer survivor, and now lives in Ann Arbor with her husband. Kim will be in conversation with Camille Pagán at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, April 2, at 6:30 pm.

The parallels to Jane Austen’s novel are revealed in the premise of the book.

Relative Strangers begins after the Bae-Wood family’s beloved father/husband passes away. His wife, Tabitha, and two daughters, Eleanor and Amelia, find themselves turned out of house and home when a claim on their estate materializes from a potential half-brother who hails from Seoul. The three women, along with Eleanor’s daughter, Maggie, all decamp to Arcadia, a cancer retreat center in the North Bay. More complications keep surfacing, as the characters reflect and question, “ ‘The world is filled with little secrets everywhere.’ […] How many other secrets are the Bae-Wood women hiding from one another?” Much like the Dashwood sisters and their widowed mother, the Bae-Woods contend with tough breaks, heartbreak, and love. 

Amelia narrates the novel in first person and finds herself at loose ends when summoned to her family’s side for the estate issues. After a quick rise to fame through her and her ex’s restaurants, she had a quick fall from which she must begin anew. Amelia contemplates, “I wonder how my mother and sister feel about me now that I’m no longer successful. I wonder how they would feel about me if they knew what really happened to me and Nils. I pray they never do.” She is avoiding coming to terms with what happened and considering her own next steps in addition to those of her family. 

Aside from the Bae-Wood family’s tumult, the setting of a cancer retreat center brings reflection, healing, and growth for the characters who have all had their own brushes with cancer, whether their own or that of others. Eleanor’s husband, Edward, died of cancer 12 years ago, and her friend, Leo, who runs the center has lost a close relative, too. Amelia befriends the yoga instructor, who is a cancer survivor, at the center and talks with her after class one day: 

“Do you have a family history?” I ask.
“Why do you ask?” Gisela says.
“I’m sorry?”
“Why does it matter if I have a family history?”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s just that twenty-eight is awfully young to get cancer, and I was trying to make sense of it.” 
“Cancer doesn’t make sense, particularly if you’re the one who has it.”
“I’m sorry,” I repeat. This time I mean it.
“It’s okay,” Gisela says. She gives me a compassionate smile. “But if you’re going to live in a cancer community, you should know there are certain questions you shouldn’t ask.”
“What are the others?”
Gisela closes her eyes as if reciting a poem from memory.
“Do you smoke? Do you drink? Do you eat red meat? Do you exercise?”
Shoot, I’ve probably asked those questions a hundred times since I got here, and no one told me not to. I wonder how many people I’ve inadvertently hurt or offended.

The trauma of cancer affects everyone around it. Amelia gains both new friends and a new respect for the deadly disease. 

Also like Sense and Sensibility, the question of whether the Bae-Wood women will find new love lingers. Will one of them end up with Jett, the handsome chef at Arcadia; Brandon, the contemplative quiet type; or Hari, the wealthy charmer? When Amelia takes up with one of the men whom she meets at the cancer retreat center, the lure of both love and financial security is strong, and Tabitha is encouraging of this union. However, Amelia is uncertain: 

Mom picks up a random magazine and flips through the pages, humming “Here Comes the Bride” to herself. Her words nag at me. Is [he] really the solution to all our problems? What does that even mean? That our family’s problems would be solved by money, or that my own problems would be solved by a man? 

Whether a marriage can solve their problems or if it is too good to be true haunts the sisters. 

I interviewed Kim prior to her Literati event, and we talked about her career change to novelist, relocation to Ann Arbor, new novel, experience with cancer, and next novel. 

Q: How did you make the switch from working as an attorney and at a Fortune 200 company to novelist? What is it like as a lawyer-turned-writer? 
A: I think lawyering and writing are natural bedfellows. As a lawyer, I was used to writing every day, staring at the blank page, using words as the tools of my trade—perfect training to be a writer. Plus, working in the legal and corporate worlds, I was exposed to lots of interesting issues and people, so I never lacked potential story ideas. Funnily enough, I was much more productive as a writer when I was working full time as a lawyer. Since retiring two years ago, I’ve barely written a thing!

Q: Prior to moving to Ann Arbor, you lived and worked in the Bay Area. What brought you to Ann Arbor?
A: So many reasons! My husband and I wanted to be closer to our aging parents and our two grown sons, all of whom lived in Ann Arbor or the metro D.C. area. We were thinking about retiring and wanted to find a place that had culture and nature but was also relatively affordable. But the biggest deciding factor was climate change. I worked at the electric utility in San Francisco, and I spent many long days and nights in the emergency operations center tracking wildfires as they destroyed homes and lives. In September 2020, my husband and I woke to a day with no light because wildfire smoke obscured the sun. We chose to move to Ann Arbor because it is a climate haven.

Q: You blogged about your journey as a debut author of A Good Family. How has your experience with publishing your latest novel, Relative Strangers, been similar or different? 
A: It has been night and day. With my debut, I was starting from scratch. I had no social media presence, no writer friends I could ask for a “blurb,” no understanding of how to navigate the publishing landscape. And, on top of all that, A Good Family came out four months after the whole world shut down from COVID. It was a challenging debut experience, to say the least. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the book business, made countless wonderful writer and reader friends, and grown in confidence about promoting myself. Plus, I hired a publicist to help get Relative Strangers on people’s radar, and that seems to be making a difference. Now, fingers crossed that we don’t have another worldwide disaster.

Q: Relative Strangers retells the story of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility with some unique characteristics and events. How did you go about recreating the plot of Sense and Sensibility and deciding when to diverge from it? 
A: When I was writing my debut, A Good Family, I was obsessed with the plot, which unfolds in a series of alternating present-day and flashback moments. I was happy about how the puzzle pieces came together in the end, but it took a lot of trial and error to get there. The great thing about writing an homage is that the essential plot already exists, so the writer can focus on other elements of the story. For Relative Strangers, I began with the characters, letting each one introduce themselves to me in their own first-person voice. Once Amelia, Eleanor, and the rest of the cast came alive in my imagination, the book practically wrote itself. 

Q: You mention that the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility was particularly inspiring. The film is a period drama, and your book is set in modern times. What changed when you adjusted the time period for the story? 
A: The most obvious adjustment that I made was to diversify the characters. There is a famous Toni Morrison quote along the lines of, “If there’s a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” and that really resonates with me. Growing up, I desperately wanted to read books that had characters who looked like me. Living in the Bay Area and now in Ann Arbor, I’m blessed to have a diverse community of friends and family. I wanted Relative Strangers to speak to that little girl in me and to reflect the world in which I live. That said, I think the 1995 film adaptation is perfect, so I tried to stay true to its spirit as much as possible.

Q: The love interests in Relative Strangers—three men, Jett, Hari, and Brandon—have parallels to characters in Sense and Sensibility, but their circumstances vary. How did you make these characters your own?  
A: It was a fun exercise developing the male characters in Relative Strangers. Some are pretty similar to their counterparts in Austen’s original, while others are decidedly different. This is a topic I’d love to discuss with book clubs because I don’t want to give away any spoilers. Suffice it to say that I drew great inspiration from the “back story” of the 1995 movie adaptation.

Q: The life of the narrator, Amelia Bae-Wood, has completely unraveled. She even questions her mother’s positive perspective: “I give Mom a double take. Is that really how she perceives me, as a go-getter? I’m pretty sure most people would think of me as a screw-up, a stunted adolescent, Matthew McConaughey in Failure to Launch. Only someone who loves me as much as Mom would see me so charitably.” As you wrote, did you see Amelia charitably as well or wish that she would get her act together? 
A: Both! I adore all my characters in Relative Strangers but none more than Amelia. As someone who relates more naturally to Eleanor— the older, responsible, sensible sister—I loved being able to channel a different part of myself and imagine what it would be like to be impetuous, passionate, spontaneous. In many ways, Amelia has accomplished a great deal in her life, and yet she feels like an utter failure. I wanted to delve past Amelia’s charming, light-hearted exterior to understand her inner workings. I felt bad putting Amelia in such tough spots throughout the book, but it was a blast seeing her crawl her way out every time.

Q: The setting of Arcadia, a cancer retreat center where the Bae-Wood women temporarily reside, sounds beautiful with its location right on the Pacific Ocean. Is it a homage of sorts to your Bay Area connections? If yes, how so? 
A: Arcadia is inspired by an actual place: Commonweal, a cancer retreat center in Bolinas, California, which is even more beautiful than described in the book. Nearly 20 years ago, when my sons were just 3 and 6, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. I worried that I would die and my children wouldn’t even remember me. I distinctly remember one of the women in my cancer support group had just gotten back from a week-long retreat at Commonweal and described it as “transformative.” Several years later, I was lucky enough to visit Commonweal myself and confirm her assessment. Relative Strangers is my love letter to Commonweal and the many wonderful friends I’ve made (and lost) on my cancer journey.

Q: What is on your stack to read? 
A: Right now, I’m preparing to go on tour with Relative Strangers, so I am trying to catch up on books written by my “in conversation” partners and fellow panelists. I just finished All the Right Notes by Dominic Lim and Johanna Porter Is Not Sorry by Sara Read—both so good! I have started Still True by Maggie Ginsberg, and am eager to dive into The Storm We Made by Vanessa Chan, Monsters We Have Made by Lindsay Starck, and Secrets of a Scottish Isle by Erica Ruth Neubauer.

Q: Where are you going next with your writing?  
A: I’ve already written another manuscript—a moody novel about a Korean American woman who goes missing and whose stoic husband is on trial for her murder—and need to edit it into shape. With my book tour and other as-yet-unannounced events coming up, however, I’m having trouble finding the time. Wish me luck!

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

A.H. Kim will be in conversation with Camille Pagán at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor on Tuesday, April 2, at 6:30 pm.