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World and Town Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 5, 2010

3.6 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Allegra Goodman Reviews World and Town

Allegra Goodman’s novels include The Cookbook Collector, Intuition and Kaaterskill Falls. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and Best American Short Stories. She is a winner of the Whiting Writer’s Award and a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Read her review of World and Town:

Gish Jen sets her novel in a small Vermont town, but extends her reach to the larger world when she writes about Hattie Kong and her new neighbors, a Cambodian family trying to start over after suffering from the traumas of war and the temptations of American city life.

Hattie has retreated to Riverlake in part for solitude, but she finds herself caught up in her neighbors’ struggles. Teenagers Sarun and Sophy try to forge American identities, even as their parents fear for their lives and souls. Slowly, Hattie begins to understand her neighbors’ history, and she sees that they are living with ghosts from their terrible past. At the same time, Hattie’s first love, Carter, appears on the scene, and she must come to terms with ghosts of her own.

I love the voices in this book--each compelling, each contributing to the layered story. I love Gish Jen’s sense of history as both personal and political, intimate and communal. The novel is powerful but also subtle and wise in its use of multiple points of view. It’s a book that begins with grief: Hattie is mourning her husband and her best friend, her neighbors grieve for what they lost in Cambodia. But grief is only a beginning. This is really a novel about survival and reconciliation.

Another writer might fall into sentimentality, bathos, or wish-fulfilling fantasy, but Gish never condescends to her characters. Their traumas and their mistakes, their self-deceptions, and their hard-earned victories read as utterly real. You will find yourself swept up and completely absorbed by this polyphonic and immensely moving novel. The world is Gish Jen’s stage. Her town becomes a theater in the round.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Cherished novelists are often those who combine humor with humanism, a feat Jen performs with particular aplomb as she choreographs telling cultural collisions. Her fourth sparkling yet deeply inquisitive novel portrays Hattie Kong, a retired high-school biology teacher who grew up in China, the daughter of an American missionary and a Chinese father descended from Confucius. After the deaths of her husband and best friend, Hattie seeks peace in the small New England town of Riverlake. But her father’s relatives are anxiously petitioning her to move her parents’ remains to the ancestral family graveyard; her great unrequited love, neuroscientist Carter, has resurfaced; and a church group has settled a traumatized Cambodian immigrant family on the property across from Hattie’s. Taking note of Chhung’s “Pol Pot facial,” Hattie takes his teenage daughter under her wing. But every relationship is jeopardized as conflicts rooted in the larger world, from a cell-phone tower to domestic violence, a gang’s trafficking, and religious hypocrisy, turn this haven into a battleground. Science is pitted against faith, karma against grace, and mayhem against forgiveness. Sharply funny and wisely compassionate, Jen’s richly stippled novel slyly questions every assumption about existence and meaning even as it celebrates generosity, friendship, and love. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: A new novel by exuberant and insightful, much-loved and much-talked-about Gish Jen is big book news. --Donna Seaman

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307272192
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307272195
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,684,555 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Related Media

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 www.gishjen.com.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I know Gish Jen as a wickedly funny writer whose bailiwick is the immigrant experience in America. Her book Mona in the Promised Land is one of my favorites, and I've given it as a gift numerous times. Her name alone is enough for me to pick up a book.

World and Town is the work of an older, more mature writer, who is grappling with more serious issues, such as aging, death, loneliness, love, guilt, regret and starting over. At the same time, her trademark wit is very much in evidence, and it more than offsets the potentially heavy themes of the book.

Hattie Kong, born of a missionary American mother and Chinese father, is a wonderfully appealing protagonist--a widow and retired teacher with a rich, complicated past, who has retreated with her dogs to a small New England town, where an ex-lover's family (and her foster family) had a home. Naturally, he reappears early in the novel, also retired and single, but her feelings for him are complex, and they don't exactly fall into one another's arms. Other key players are the Chhung family, immigrants of Cambodia, who become her new neighbors and whose problems, particularly those of the daughter, Sophy, begin to consume her life, as well as the various members of Hattie's walking group. One of the most intriguing characters makes only cameo appearances, because she is dead: Hattie's friend Lee, whose acerbic wit and pithy comments are usually worth a laugh.

Jen is highly adept at depicting human foibles and small town life (one of the incidental characters, the town gossip, is named Judy Tell-All), and she tells her story from multiple perspectives that help bring her characters alive.
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Format: Hardcover
World and Town typifies connections--how our individual stories are chapters in a larger story - a story formed by those who came before us, and by each person's time and place in the world.

The stories that unfold in World and Town are centered around Hattie. Two years before we meet her, she lost her husband Joe, and her best friend Lee, to cancer. As Hattie's story emerges, she has reached the moment in her grief journey when she is trying to cultivate a new life out of the void their deaths have left. The seeds of her larger story continue to spring up...she is a Kong--a descendant of Confucius...she was sent at 16, alone, to America...her missionary mother and Chinese father...Hattie's own complicated history...her first love Carter....

Hattie relocates to a small town, a town that has roots in her past, and, as all places do, has its own story. Soon she has new neighbors--a Cambodian refugee family also seeking to create a new life in a small town--away from the violence and gangs of the city. As their story unfolds we see that the Chhungs moved from the city, but are unable to move away from their past ordeals in the Pol Pot regime.

Jen conveys the story through the distinct voices of the characters, which is very effective--a complex story emerges with clarity. I finished the book feeling like Hattie and the Chhungs were my own neighbors, and even Hattie's recollections of Lee left me knowing that Lee was a `salt of the earth' woman. This book jarred me with its poignancy, captivated me with vivid images, moved me to compassion, and made me laugh out loud--this book is a great read.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I'm a great fan of Gish Jen's "Mona in the Promised Land," a witty novel about a Chinese-American teenager and her assimilation woes in the mostly Jewish promised land of Scarsdale. Jen returns to this theme in "World and Town," although this time the outsiders are Cambodian refugees and the affluent New York suburb has become a small town in northern New England (Vermont, I think). The protagonist, Hattie Kong, a retired teacher in her sixties, had herself arrived from China decades before and is thus something of an exotic in the Yankee town; it's as if the fictional Mona had grown up and decided to lend a hand to a new group of immigrants.

Unfortunately, where "Mona" was nimble, "World and Town" is ponderous, weighed down by pages of descriptive detail on every aspect of small town New England life, from town meeting to the moose population. Hattie's ruminations go on forever, too, as do the inner thoughts of two other characters, each of whom gets a chapter. It's a relief to break away from Hattie's dogs and cookies, but Sophy, the Cambodian teenager, is also given to extensive interior monologues; you know it's not Hattie because of the adolescent "like" in every other sentence. Everett, the wronged husband of another character, offers his rambling thoughts in a chapter rendered in what passes for rural New England dialect. The novel, at almost 400 pages, almost disappears into this fog.

It's hard to write about small towns, perhaps because most people don't live in them. There are a few standouts, like Alice Munro (a genius of the spare but telling detail). Another writer who "gets" little towns is the Maine writer Carolyn Chute (a genius of unflinching, gritty detail).
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