Two Chinese-American Novels Redefine the American Dream

(Image courtesy of Penguin Random House)

All the political talk about the place of immigrants in America under the present political climate got me on an immigrant-saga kick in my readings. I was happy to discover two excellent debut novels:  Celeste Ng’s “Everything I Never Told You” and Jade Chang’s “Wangs vs. the World.”

Both novels portray Chinese-American families and explore the meaning of the American Dream during the volatile 1970s and the economic downturn in 2008. If your concept of the quintessential Chinese-American story is in the mold of Amy Tan’s novels or Maxine Hong Kingston’s books, you will be pleasantly surprised by this new crop of books. While the previous generation of Chinese-American authors focused on the struggle to accept their Chinese heritage, Ng and Chang write about the uniquely American qualities of their immigrant characters.

“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng (Penguin Random House, 2014)

The interracial marriage of James Lee and his Caucasian wife, Marilyn Walker, is at the center of Celeste Ng’s literary novel. Marilyn wants their middle child, 16-year-old Lydia, to pursue medicine, while James only wants his daughter to be more sociable. Both are projecting their own desires and failures onto their daughter.

Lydia’s mysterious drowning jolts the seemingly thriving family in 1970s Ohio. Harvard-bound Nathan, the oldest child, tries to solve the mystery of his sister’s death with his own theories. But it’s the youngest, Hannah, who may hold the answers.

The book’s publisher describes this novel as a suspense/thriller. I’m inclined to call it a literary mystery. Don’t expect the merciless pace of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” or the meticulous procedural of a Tana French novel. Ng’s book contemplates on how far the Lee family assimilates to American society, and still falls short in the pursuit of the American Dream.

Ng is a confident debut novelist, who starts her book with this memorable line: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

The author has no qualms breaking some writing “rules” using an omniscient/multiple points of view and present-tense narrative. Her risk-taking has been rewarded. She won the 2014 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (adult fiction category) and other awards.

(Image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

“Wangs vs. the World” by Jade Chang (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

In 2008, when Charles Wang loses his cosmetic company, his family experiences a dizzying riches-to-rags spiral. They are suddenly homeless. They even have to borrow the old Mercedes Benz they’d given to the help for the long journey from California to the Catskills in New York.

During the road trip, we get to know the family. Charles, the patriarch, plans to re-invent himself by returning to China and claiming his ancestral land.  His second wife, Barbra, wants to leave him. His son, Andrew, wants to be a comedian. Charles’s youngest daughter, Grace, hates school and wants to pursue fashion blogging. They are en route to New York to “bunk” with Charles’s oldest daughter, Saina, an artist who is herself recovering from a recent professional failure and scandal.

Financial doom combined with family drama could be deadly boring in the hands of a lesser writer. Fortunately for us, Chang has a great sense of humor.

In explaining the one necessary ingredient to Charles’s American success, she writes: “Yes, America had loved him once. She’d given him the balls to turn his father’s grim little factory, a three-smokestack affair on the outskirts of Taipei that supplied urea to fertilizer manufacturers into a cosmetics empire. Urea. His father dealt in piss! Not even real honest piss—artificial piss. Faux pee. A nitrogen-carrying ammonia substitute that could be made out of inert materials and given a public relations scrubbing and named carbamide, but that was really nothing more than the thing that made piss less terribly pissy.”

Charles’s father had sent him to America to meet with fertilizer manufacturers. Instead, Charles takes the lowly urea and uses it to produce high-end cosmetics. Using pissy urea to make American women look pretty, which in turn makes Charles rich beyond belief, is ironic. It’s just an example of Chang’s humorous take on the American Dream. This is a smart, modern, and funny read you’ll love, and the Wangs are a family you won’t soon forget.

If you’re interested in reading Asian-American and other novels with minority characters, check out Shenwei’s “Diversity Bingo” book suggestions and R.O. Kwon’s article, “The Asian-American Literature that Got Me Through 2016.”

Read other book reviews:

Jess Row’s “Your Face in Mine”: Would You Change Your Race if You Could?

“Other Women’s Children” by Perri Klass: The Doctor as Literary Heroine

“Under the Wide and Starry Sky”: No Sophomore Slump for Nancy Horan

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