Jade Chang’s debut novel is full of smart one-liners and clever observations. It made me long to become pals with Chang, because she’s probably excellent at cocktail-party conversation and slandering one’s enemies in private. Plus, she can tell a damn good story.
Charles Wang is an aging Chinese businessman who arrived in the United States with nothing to lose. He built a cosmetics empire using his ruthless ambition and commendable savvy, then sat back and lived the American dream (the one that has nothing to do with motherhood and apple pie and is only available to a fraction of the country’s citizens). But he doubled down at the wrong moment and lost it all. Andrew, his only son, is terribly unfunny but wants nothing more than to be a stand-up comedian. Grace starts out as a prep-school cliché, a surly, death-obsessed, pampered youngest child whose only claim to fame is her respectably followed style blog – but she soon becomes one of the novel’s most sympathetic characters (especially, I would imagine, for those raising teenaged girls). And Saina, the eldest, is the most fascinating of all, an artist who used the risk-management skills she inherited from her father to turn herself into a star before falling prey to the bad juju she most likely also inherited.
These far-flung children must come together at the behest of Charles, who no longer has anything to offer them except his own indefatigable hope. But this book isn’t really about Charles’s madcap attempt to reclaim his ancestral land in China, though that does come into play. And it’s not even about the collapse of the Wang empire, or the financial crisis itself.
This is a book about family, about a group of people forced together by what some might view as an unlucky combination of fate, genetics and disaster. It’s about the kind of love that can spring up in the most unlikely of places – which is precisely what makes families such fertile ground to write upon, the kind that yields stories we’ll want to carry with us, like heirlooms.
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