Kathryn Ma clearly remembers the day she started her new novel, "The Year She Left Us." It was 1999, and she was on a family trip to China.

At her hotel's breakfast buffet one morning, she noticed a large group of Western parents with Chinese babies -- an adoption group of the kind that has made the journey to China many times over the past two decades.

"For the first time, the reality of what was happening with international adoption was made visible to me," says Ma, who lives in San Francisco with her husband and three daughters. She instantly saw the situation "as a lens, through which I could look at race, immigration, assimilation, and identity." Those themes come together movingly in "The Year She Left Us," which tells the story of Ariadne Bettina Yun-li Rose Kong -- Ari for short -- a Chinese girl adopted by Charlie, an unmarried Chinese-American woman living in San Francisco.

Ari's a teenager in turmoil; as the book begins, she travels with a group to the orphanage where she was adopted, experiencing a trauma that sends her in search of her true identity.

Such orphanage visits are common for adoptive families, said Ma, who did extensive research into the subject.

China enacted its international adoption law in 1992, opening the floodgates for families in the United States and other countries to adopt Chinese children. "I was amazed to learn there are over 70,000 Chinese children who have been adopted by American parents since 1992," Ma said. "But what was interesting to me was that the oldest of those children are now becoming adults."


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The subject was rich with possibility, she adds. "Identity is a theme I'm very obsessed with -- for myself, and because I've raised three daughters," Ma said. "I'm very interested in the lives of young women and how they come into lives of their own while keeping family ties." Ma acknowledges that adoption experience varies widely; many adoptees are happy and well-adjusted, she says.

Ari, however, is unable to adjust. "People tell her 'you're lucky -- because you're in a Chinese-American family, no one has to know you're adopted. It will be easy for you,' " says Ma. "In fact, everything is harder for her. She's confused and very curious about why she feels so much sorrow and grief."

In alternating chapters, Ma explores conflicts among the other Kong women. Charlie, a public defender, and her sister, Les, a judge, struggle to balance their personal and professional lives. Their mother, Ari's Gran, faces memories of her own early traumas.

It's a remarkably assured debut novel, and Ma, whose volume of short stories, "All That Work and Still No Boys," won the Iowa Short Fiction award, says she spent three years finishing it. "I spent a lot of time on the architecture of the book -- I wanted it to be seamless," she says. Ari and Gran, she notes, speak directly to the reader; Charlie and Les are written in the third person.

Ma, who was born and raised in Pennsylvania, has roots in China. Her great-grandfather was born there and emigrated to the United States in the 1860s; after working as a servant in Oakland, he became a minister, married a Dutch-American woman and established the first Chinese Christian church in New York City. Her parents were born in China; that 1999 trip marked the first time in 50 years her father had been back to his hometown.

Ma settled in the Bay Area with her family when she was in seventh grade. She studied history at Stanford and law at UC Berkeley, then established a career as a civil litigation attorney that spanned 13 years.

Still, fiction always beckoned. An avid reader -- she lists John Updike, E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Drabble and Edna O'Brien as favorite authors -- Ma was always curious about whether she could write.

"There was that idea buried someplace deep, and as I got older, that idea grew until it became a kind of urgency," she says. "Finally, I thought, it's time to try." She gave up her law career, rented an office and started writing.

Now that "The Year She Left Us" is out, she's glad she made that choice.

"I have a bit of sadness that I didn't start writing at an earlier age," says Ma, who is now 57. "I wonder -- where would I be as a writer if I'd started sooner?

"At the same time, I'm enormously grateful that I took my time. I feel like it's a book of substance, and I'm not sure I could have written it when I was younger. All the living that has gone into my life is reflected in those pages. I hope it has a gravity and a maturity to it. And people seem to be resonating with that."