The realities of mixed-heritage familes are explored in The Love Wife
: those serio-comic moments that all families run into, but that are particularly difficult when its members are of completely different backgrounds. In this case, the non-American heritage is Chinese and the practitioner is an old hand. Gish Jen wrote Mona in the Promised Land
, Who's Irish?
, and Typical American
, all rich and telling contributions to immigrant literature. The Love Wife
combines humor, pathos, a big surprise at the end, and dead-on dialogue between children and parents to keep the reader engaged.
Carnegie Wong, only son of successful immigrant Mama Wong, much to his mother's horror, marries big, blonde, Caucasian Jane, known ever after, pejoratively, as Blondie. Carnegie has already adopted an Asian child of unknown origin--a factor in the story--when he meets Blondie and they adopt a Chinese girl. Lizzy and Wendy are eventually joined by a bio-baby boy, Bailey, who is "half-half" and disconcertingly blonde. The family is complete, Mama Wong dies, and along with her go all her prescriptive, preemptive, insulting remarks. Not quite. Her domineering hand reaches from the grave back to China and then to Carnegie and Blondie's home, delivering Lan, an erstwhile "cousin" Mama has bequeathed to her son and his family. She is supposed to be a nanny, but Blondie believes that she has been sent to be a "love-wife" or concubine.
The entire family dynamic is changed almost instantly. Lan, a model of passive-aggression, immediately ingratiates herself to the girls. Blondie, a model of forebearance as she is berated by her eldest daughter, misunderstood by her husband and detested by Lan, tries to befriend Lan; a lesser person would have driven her from the house. Lan is so obvious that she becomes a self-parody. Blondie quits her job to spend more time with her family; Carnegie loses his, and the family is headed for implosion.
This would have been quite enough plot to carry these characters into, and perhaps out of, heavy waters, but there are other complications; entrepreneurial thirst denied, racism in the 'burbs, a killing fire and bad choices abounding. It's a very full plate at the end, which is ambiguous enough to allow the reader to believe anything. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
A meddlesome Chinese-American mother bequeaths a Chinese nanny to her ambivalent son and his big blonde wife in this darkly comic fairy tale about cultural assimilation, biological destiny and domestic warfare. In her earlier novels (Typical American
; etc.) and short stories, Jen established a sort of Asian Richter scale, registering the culture shock of new and not-so-new Chinese immigrants and their complicated, irrepressible families. Here she focuses on the racially mixed Wong family: Carnegie; his older wife, Janie (dubbed "Blondie" by Carnegie's hilariously awful mother); two adopted Asian daughters (the difficult teenager Lizzy and the hypersensitive Wendy); and a "bio" baby son who looks disturbingly non-Asian. When Carnegie's mother dies after a long bout with Alzheimer's, the Wongs are shocked to learn that she has arranged for an extended visit by a female relative from the Mainland, the unmarried, mysterious Lan. A year older than Blondie, whose "dewlap" and resemblance to an "Aeroflot" are beginning to alarm Carnegie, Lan seems quaint, "plainish" and self-effacing; soon her ambiguous status, passive-aggressiveness and blooming beauty threaten to destabilize the already rocky Wong marriage. Not only does she captivate Carnegie, who is dismayed and fascinated by his own rediscovered Chinese identity, she also preys on the Wong girls' insecurity as Blondie's nonbiological daughters. What threatens to turn into a standard evil-nanny plot takes on unexpected depth as Jen captures the not always likable Wong family with her trademark compassion, laser-like attention to detail and quirky wit. Though the shifting first-person narratives sometimes come off as awkwardly stagey (particularly Carnegie's, with comments like "I was entranced by the eternal return of villanelles—that deathless morph"), this novel has a robust, lived-in quality that makes you miss it when it's over.
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