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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.