With her first two novels, Gish Jen established herself as one of the leading literary chroniclers of the Chinese-American experience—a phrase that neatly sums up her subject matter but fails to convey the subtlety, irony, and fleet-footed wit of her approach to the old story of immigrants making it in America, one generation at a time. Typical American (1991) began at the beginning, with the story of a thwarted Shanghaiese student’s journey from restaurant kitchens to postwar suburbia, with considerable illusions lost along the way. In the delightfully satirical Mona in the Promised Land (1996), Jen followed the same family up the real estate food chain to suburban Westchester (Jen herself grew up in Scarsdale), where they find themselves plunged into the riotous varieties of American ethnic experience, circa 1968. The Chinese are “the New Jews,” a sociological observation that teenage Mona takes as a commandment—converting under the guidance of a bearded, guitar-strumming rabbi, starting a civil rights crusade in her parents’ restaurant, and wreaking intergenerational havoc by signing up with the louder side in the great American war between the “oppressive and the expressive.” “The whole key to Judaism is to ask, ask, instead of obey, obey,” declares Mona Changowitz (as she jokingly renames herself). “You’ve got to…[stop] trying to be a WASP and act like you don’t have anything to complain about. You’ve got to realize you’re a minority.”
Now, with The Love Wife, Jen takes stock of the confusions of the next generation, through the eyes of an ethnically mixed-up twenty-first-century family living the American dream in an upscale suburb of Boston. Carnegie Wong is a nice-guy tech executive who never learned Mandarin and turned down his immigrant mother’s million-dollar offer to call off his wedding to a white woman. His wife, Blondie (as she has permitted her mother-in-law to rename her), is a WASP with a job at a socially conscious investing fund and a guilty pride in the multicultural sociology experiment unfolding in their household. On page one, she describes their brood as if enumerating a group of specimens: “two beautiful Asian girls—or should I say Asian American,” both adopted, and one toddler “bio boy,” a “half half” with pale skin and a shock of blond hair that raises suspicious eyebrows among the delivery room nurses. The Bailey-Wongs buy “multicultural crayons” and balance their checkbook on the abacus as an educational exercise. They are, as a drunken neighbor tells them one night, “the new American family.”
But there’s one dissenter from this gauzy multi-culti vision. Mama Wong, Carnegie’s tough-as-nails mother, escaped mainland China after the Communist revolution by swimming to Hong Kong with two basketballs under her arms, lost her husband after a few years in America, and clawed her way out of Chinatown with savvy real estate investments. To her, there’s something distinctly wrong with her only son’s idea of wide-open American possibility. “The trouble with you people is not enough periods,” she declares. “…A child should grow up, say this is my mother, period. This is my father, period. Otherwise that family look like not real.” Or, as she puts it to Carnegie in her late-life Alzheimer’s haze, “What? You think you are white? You are Wong! Wong! Wong!”
Indeed, there’s a distinct unease beneath the Bailey-Wongs’ self-conscious rainbow harmony. It simmers up in the cutesy kitchen slang they use to describe themselves. “Soup du jour” is Blondie’s increasingly unreassuring term for oldest daughter Lizzy, a rebellious fifteen-year-old who dyes her black hair blonde, looks at her unclassifiably Asian face, and wonders just who it was that abandoned her on an Iowa church stoop fifteen years earlier. (Mama Wong puts the family’s whispered suspicions bluntly: “…You look at her, you see war.”) Blondie herself may come from corn-fed midwestern stock (see, she has roots too), but her open-mindedness and respectable Mandarin prove that she’s a “chopstick,” not a clueless “fork.”
Into this stew comes Lan, a mysterious distant cousin from China. Under the terms of her will, Mama Wong leaves the family’s genealogy book to Lizzy’s younger sister, Wendy—“the one true Chinese in the family,” adopted from the mainland—as long as the family allows Lan to live with them for two years. Carnegie wants that book. Blondie, against her instinct, wants to be “open” and “flexible”—after all, she asks, “Had I not been voted Most Sympathetic to Others in high school?” When Lan arrives at the airport, wearing cheap heels and looking half her forty-six years, Blondie watches her standing next to the girls and thinks they look like they belong together, “like kitchen canisters…S-M-L,” adding, “Was that racist?”
From here things head in a more or less predictable direction—the familiar mommy/nanny tug-of-war with an erotic, incestuous twist. The girls spend more and more time with Lan, listening to her strange stories about China. Carnegie finds himself staring at his enigmatic cousin with longing. Blondie wonders if Lan has really been sent as a nanny or as a kind of “love wife,” or concubine, the culturally appropriate woman Carnegie always refused to choose. And Lan herself, smarting at Blondie’s “fake” kindness, sullenly begins flouting her child-rearing rules. Before long, she is in control of the kitchen, giving Chinese cooking lessons to Blondie, who takes dutiful notes while subtly revising her recipes, “try[ing] to simply use a little less sugar…, set a good example.” The knives may be aimed only at the vegetables, but this is war.
The Love Wife is Jen’s most ambitious book in several ways—and also, perhaps, her least successful. First, she takes a big technical gamble, abandoning the wryly omniscient narrative voice of her previous books, and also much of their featherlight humor. Instead, the job of telling the story is passed like a hot potato from Carnegie to Blondie to the kids to Lan and back again, as each member of the household gives their take on the family’s gradual fragmentation. This gives the book greater psychological texture, but it also leads to a lot of bland and long-winded writing. The children in particular are dull. (Where is wisecracking Mona Changowitz when you need her?)
The novel also represents Jen’s first sustained attempt to get outside her own mental home turf, to see what the new American melting pot looks like to a character, the WASP Blondie, who could have had the option of not thinking about ethnicity at all. Jen captures Blondie’s impossible position, caught between her openness and her conventionality, between her self-conscious ethnic noblesse oblige and her legitimate desire to defend her turf against the interloper Lan. “A previous block of something pre-veneer” is Carnegie’s (awkward) description, but there’s something inauthentic, something too self-conscious, about her too. As usual, Mama Wong puts it better: “Everything a nut do, she do too. She is not even a real nut…. She is only try-to-be-nut.”
Mama Wong, however, is the real thing. (An early version of the character was sketched out in the title story of Jen’s excellent 1999 collection, Who’s Irish?) For all her hard outlines of caricature, she has a life force (and an innate grasp of entertainment values) that seems missing in the more enlightened and settled generations. Certainly it’s missing in Blondie’s relatives. “You watch,” Mama Wong warns Carnegie. “In ten years they are going to need your help. They are not go up. They are go down.” Jen certainly writes about them as if they are the endpoint of a played-out story. Blondie’s sisters have earnest manners and earnest hobbies like weaving, and her boomingly bonhomous brothers are fond of shouting “Lillibolaro!” (the battle cry of William of Orange’s Ulster supporters, of course) at wedding receptions. They are, Carnegie concedes to his mother, “beyond real estate. Their capital was knowledge. Taste.”
No one in Blondie’s clan particularly seems to mind even when the resentful locals take over the family summer compound in Maine, or when the whole place burns to the ground in a fatal fire—one of a string of far-fetched plot twists that drag out the second half of the novel. It’s just the inevitable, overdue reminder that the country doesn’t belong to them, that they, too, are strangers. “Nothing like this has ever happened to us before,” says one brother. “Do you realize…how disgustingly lucky we’ve been?” “Globalization,” another brother calls it. “Sooner or later we were bound to get caught up in someone else’s mess.”
The moralizing is too broad (and too callous—would anyone really wax this philosophical after his house had burned to the ground, incinerating someone in the process?). But Jen is considerably sharper—and the emotional carnage certainly seems more real—when she sticks to matters closer to home, and to the heart. Near the end of the novel, the Bailey-Wongs have broken into two “natural-looking households.” Blondie and the baby move out, leaving the two girls with Carnegie and Lan. Mama Wong has won, but in a way it’s Blondie who comes out strongest. She has certainly been cast in the most difficult role. Newly roots-conscious Carnegie can remain passive in the face of Lan and Blondie’s standoff, letting his “new American family” break apart as a result of his hunger for a book of his family’s ancient Chinese genealogy. But Blondie is forced to embrace some hard-won and not entirely flattering wisdom: that yes, when it comes to her own children she might think there is something as being “too Chinese,” and that maybe she wasn’t always Most Sympathetic to Others. Maybe letting Mama Wong call her “Blondie” wasn’t just like changing her first name instead of her last, as she jokes, but letting herself get pushed around out of white guilt. Maybe what she really wanted all along was to have her multicultural cake and her privileged place at the American table too. And maybe sometimes it’s OK to eat with a fork.
Suffice to say that Jen, a lover of bittersweet happy endings, doesn’t just leave it there. Thanks to a last-minute surprise revelation, Carnegie gets his genealogy book, and just maybe wins Blondie back too. Even more than the fate of the Wongs, we’re left wondering where, after three novels, Jen has left to take her themes of intergenerational identity crisis. By the end of The Love Wife, there’s a feeling that the old immigrant storyline has reached the last generation, run out of gas along with Mama Wong. Maybe, just maybe, the mixed-up Bailey-Wongs really are typical Americans now.