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The Love Wife Hardcover – September 14, 2004

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (September 14, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400042135
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400042135
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #859,856 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Gish Jen has published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New Republic, and other magazines, as well as in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Her honors include a Lannan Literary Award and a Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. For further info, please see

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Linda Wynston on October 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover
So much has been written about Gish Jen's new novel. Yet what has been missed in all the press and in the reviews posted here too, is the depth of characterization in this book, and the accuracy of the portrayal of Chinese culture in particular. The character of Blondie captures to an uncanny degree the dream of self realization that lies at the core of many American lives. The character of Carnegie epitomizes a certain rootless post-modern ironic take on the world. But even more dead on is the character of Lan. As a person who has spent time in China, I am amazed to finally behold a character who thinks like the Chinese I met and knew. For example, she is, like a large number of Chinese people, obsessed by what's "real" and what's "fake." In a country where so much of reality is cloaked, it is not surprising that people would think and talk in those terms. Why is it that you almost never see a Chinese character in American fiction who reflects that? Lan is also obsessed with her status in a way that I recognize from my encounters in Asia. She needs to know whether she is a member of the family or a servant, and is obsessed with the question. A related issue for her has to do with belonging. She is, in my reading of the book, not so much trying to steal the girls as driven to find a place among them. So many Chinese students report, over and over, how cold a country America seems to them. Lan is no exception. And she is obsessed with the question of whether she is authentically from Suzhou, a beautiful place that represents the height of Chinese civilization. Suzhou is where her family came from, but she has been living in Shandong province, a poor and backward area. Which is her identity?Read more ›
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on October 1, 2004
Format: Hardcover
When Carnegie Wong's mother, the outrageous Mama Wong, discovers that Carnegie is going to marry Janie Bailey ("Blondie"), descended from Scottish/German immigrants, she tries, vainly, to bribe Carnegie to change his mind. Fourteen years later, the happily married Blondie and Carnegie now have two adopted Chinese daughters and a biological "half half" son, and Mama Wong has died. Their home life is suddenly turned upside down, however, when Lanlan, a 46-year-old "cousin" from mainland China, previously unknown, arrives at their home through the machinations of Mama Wong--from beyond the grave. Working as their part-time nanny, Lan quickly wins over the children, who respond to the fact that, like a "real" mother (and unlike Blondie), she looks like them.

The life of this racially mixed family is examined in minute detail, and the reader sees Lan slowly undermining their relationship with Blondie. Lan tells stories about life in China, fixes Chinese snacks, and introduces Chinese cooking, and the children try to understand and appreciate their cultural and racial identity. In bright, breezy language, each of the main characters develops the narrative from his/her own point of view and reminisces about the past, revealing his/her own quirky personality, offbeat relationships, and search for personal and cultural identity.

Despite the specific details, minute descriptions, and personal commentary, the characters are not fully rounded, and their motivations are unclear. Carnegie, for example, has protected his marriage against his mother's meddling for years, and his attraction to Lan is both baffling and inconsistent with what we know of his marriage.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Suzanne Amara TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I found myself really thinking after reading this book, especially about what I felt were its two main themes---class and adoption. Over and over we see how those who feel they are in a higher class than others subtly make this known, and how those in the lower class are affected by this, and how things can get reversed. Lan and Blondie's relationship really is incredibly well presented. The meaning of family in relation to adoption is also something I got many new insights into after reading this---what makes someone family? A twist at the end of the book especially makes you think!

However, I found the plot of this book quite weak. It seems to rely too much on big shocking events to move things along, or events that are meant to be shocking, but most of which you can see coming from half a book away. I guess plot is not the important element here, though. The book is mostly internal dialogue of its many characters, and we get to know most of them quite well, except in my mind for Carnegie, who never really comes alive for me.

I read this book with a great deal of enjoyment, and found the time to finish it even with a small colicky baby needing my attention! The author has a wonderful gift for characterization and also for sense of place---I am very familiar with a couple of her locals---the suburban Boston area and Maine---and they were very well presented! I would certainly recommend this read.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Sue O'Connell on October 11, 2004
Format: Hardcover
When I saw that the NYT's tough Michiko Kakutani gush over The Love Wife , I had to take a look. Wow! This couldn't be a more timely novel with all the cross-cultural clashes front page news; here's a novel both about families mixed-raced and mixed-adoption/bio but also about America, nationhood, & the challenges that cultural misperceptions create. The reviews I've seen comment on the amazing Mama Wong, but all the characters are so real they become 'family' by the end. Kakutani's comment that this is a "big-hearted" book is right on; you feel that the author love's all these characters and you do to -- though at times you want to shake them too! And, the ending is a heart-stopper.
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