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.
*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