The Wangs vs. the World
By Jade Chang
Harper Avenue, 351 pages, $24.99
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.
By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $35
Alice Hoffman has long been known as a storyteller who weaves the believable with the unbelievable and finds the magic in the mundane, and her latest delivers on her brand in a big way. Here, Hoffman fosters enchantment in the most wounded of characters, Shelby Richmond, who at the outset of the novel has recovered physically but not mentally from a horrific car accident that's left her best friend, Helene, with a devastating brain injury.
Helene is a strange character, at times incomprehensible – but not in a manner that fails to serve the story. She has been elevated to the status of saint because of the tragedy, and is permanently frozen at 17, meaning she's no longer culpable for anything she may have done when she was fully alive and somewhat cruel. Meanwhile, Shelby has been left behind to bear it all, and she easily takes up the mantle of self-flagellation. The accident was not her fault, and no one ever made her feel it was, not even the heartbroken parents of the injured girl. There was no alcohol involved, the roads were icy – the only thing Shelby did differently that night was put on her seatbelt. But still, she punishes herself beyond any kind of reason.
There are drugs, suicide attempts and the construction of an impenetrable emotional wall it will take years for anyone to manage to scale. The book follows Shelby as she comes of age and ever-so-slowly becomes well again. She moves to New York, finds love, loses it, discovers who she wants to be and does things that other people find easy but that she, as damaged as she is, finds almost impossible. She also discovers the identity of the angel who has lived at the edges of her life, sending her postcards bearing cryptic messages – "Say something," "Do something," "Save something" – that inspire the bright, pivotal moments in her otherwise dark existence.
Dreamlike and devastating, Hoffman's words are a beacon of hope in the desolate landscape she creates, much like the roses she describes as blooming in the dead of winter, outside Helene's window.
Small Great Things
By Jodi Picoult
Random House Canada, 480 pages, $32
Like all Jodi Picoult novels, Small Great Things is a page-turner. Like some of her more recent novels, there's also a message: Her last novel, Leaving Time, drew attention to the plight of elephants in captivity. But this time, Picoult has taken a big risk. She was criticized for it – albeit gently – by Roxane Gay, who reviewed the book for the New York Times and grudgingly accepted that she understood what "very earnest" Picoult was trying to do, but that she felt the author lurched a bit, that "if the politics overcomes the prose, then it becomes something more than a novel."
After reading Small Great Things, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Not today, when people sometimes use their fame to spread hatred, fear and bigotry – and lately, appear to be succeeding at it. In Small Great Things, African-American labour and delivery nurse Ruth Jefferson is taken off a newborn's care team because the parents are white supremacists. A neonatal unit is a place to keep the peace, Ruth's supervisor says, in an attempt to explain why she's bowing to racist pressures. But Ruth is alone on the floor when the child goes into cardiac arrest. And instead of saving the child's life she makes a series of choices that land her in jail. Ruth is a main narrator; so is skinhead Turk Bauer, the hate-filled father of the dead child; and Kennedy McQuarrie, the public defender assigned to Ruth's contentious case.
Picoult carefully shows how close the dangerous beliefs of someone like Turk can come to all of us, and also how the seemingly innocuous prejudices of a person like Kennedy can do just as much damage. It's not a perfect novel, but I admire her for telling this particular story, even if some might feel parts of it aren't hers to tell, or that she's not speaking directly to them. It's a story that should be told, no matter the pitfalls, and I hope other well-known authors follow Picoult's brave path, forcing their captive audiences to face unpleasant facts and perhaps enact change – even if the only change is talking about things we normally keep hidden inside.