15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: World and Town (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Program (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. As much as I enjoyed the book--primarily for the zingers that appear every few pages--I felt that Jen was walking a fine line between humor and pathos, and the juxtaposition wasn't always successful. I wasn't as moved as I might have been, and at times in the serious sections would have preferred a little more levity, though perhaps that's just the mood I was in. I also sometimes had trouble remembering the various Chinese phrases she threw in; I'm not even sure she explained them all.
That said, World and Town is a worthy addition to the oeuvre of an author whose work has given me many hours of enjoyment, and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in a multicultural take on the American and immigrant experience.