This is a story of rags to riches to rags—Charles Wang had nothing but urea when he came to America and he turned that piss into a thriving multi-million dollar cosmetics industry in California. Us Americans will put anything on our faces… Two wives, three children, a few bad decisions and then the 2008 economic collapse comes and all of a sudden, Charles has nothing.
It’s all gone faster than you can say, do you want a side of fried rice with that.
OK, I should probably not be a stand-up comedian like Andrew, the middle Wang child, aspires to be, but if you even had a slight chuckle there, you would probably be on board for a lot of the satirical, fun-loving, and witty humor that Chang is constantly tossing around. Some of it is so subtle and quick, it’s easy to miss.
Once the Wangs lose it all, Charles takes his wife Barbra (who renamed herself after Barbra Streisand) and embarks on a wild cross country road trip, collecting his two younger children, Grace and Andrew from their respective schools and then journeying to New York State to meet up with his oldest daughter, Saina. What his plan after that could be, is anyone’s guess.
Grace, the youngest is a burgeoning fashion blogger, while Saina was an extremely respected avant-garde artist who had a recent show that was not well-regarded. It was so bad in fact, that she’s gone into hiding to regroup and restart. She’s also having boyfriend trouble.
That’s the setup for this wild adventure ride. What could go wrong?
While it’s definitely humorous and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, it is also introspective about race, identity, and different levels of economic hardship—all of which are things that have been thrown harshly into the spotlight due to the results of this long and difficult election.
The Wangs are all trying to figure out who they are and where they belong in this new American landscape. For Charles, it’s just another step, a step forward, a step backward—he’s been through it all and he’s always come out the other side on top.
But for his children, they have never known anything but security, wealth, and being able to do basically whatever they want. What does this uncertain future hold for them? During the book, each kid starts to explore who they are and what they really want to do, despite potentially not having the means to do it. They start to learn what it means to work for something that you love, something that you want, just like their father did.
Throughout, the chapters switch back and forth between the perspectives of all the characters, so you really get to see each of their intimate thoughts, superficial, private, groundbreaking or not. How their lives intersect and separate felt so realistic; they are a family, but they each have their own separate lives, worries, and hopes for the future.
At the same time, they mold together like a real family, with past experiences that sometimes come out on the page, and sometimes are just felt through character interaction.
My favorite part of the book is probably when Andrew goes to an open mic standup night and totally bombs. Just. Completely. Sucks. It was a perfectly written scene that made me cringe and wince and try to look away from the page but I couldn’t stop reading—it was so realistic, it was like being there. Great writing!
The book delves into identity, both cultural and racial. I felt like the Wangs were sort of stuck in a limbo space, as though they didn’t really belong in America and they didn’t really belong in their homeland of China, though Charles is pretty intent on returning to that land that he hasn’t seen since he was in his early 20s.
So where is home then? Where do they belong as Chinese-Americans? And what sort of identity are you left with when the ground you stand on is ripped out from under you?
I had some questions left as I finished the book, but as I thought about the open-ended nature of the story, especially for some of the characters, it felt perfect, it felt like the American way. Like leaving space for them to write their own American Dream, just like Charles did.
This book was a joy to read and I loved the experience of Chang’s delightful writing. An excellent and ambitious debut.
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Find out more about the author, Jade Chang
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Find out more about the publisher, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.