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Beyond the Narrow Gate Mass Market Paperback – April 1, 2000
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The book begins by faithfully relating the early stories of the four protagonists, however, midway through the author begins to recount her efforts to track down the women and dissect their lives. Chang divulges information that, at times, surprised me. She is not shy to portray any of her subjects, including her own familiy members and in particular her mother, in an unflattering light. I don't know how I would feel if a friend's child tracked me down, interviewed me, spent time in my home and with my family, and then wrote a book describing me as an insecure liar - which is essentially what Chang does. While that is a bit unsettling, it does make for some interesting reading. I can't imagine how such behavior impacted the friendship between the four women. It must have been a pretty interesting release party!
In the last third of the book, Chang becomes more interested in trying to find out what makes her subjects tick rather than simply relating their individual stories - and I began to wonder why she was so intent on playing psychologist. The answer becomes apparent by the book's end - Chang is as insecure and unsure of herself as the women she is profiling. Even though their circumstances and experiences are vastly different, the phrase "like mother, like daughter" never rang truer.
Normally I enjoy this sort of book, but I found this one lacking. I felt like the author had difficulty treating her mother as objectively as her other subjects. I found the writing to be, for lack of a better term, tiresome. The author regularly puts thoughts into the heads of her subjects. The book is long-winded, and the chapters seem to ramble on without organization. Some more serious editing might have made this book better. In any case, there are much better books about the immigrant experience and about Asian-American identity.
This story rings very true for me. My mother went to the Taipei high school where the four main characters meet, and this is what first drew me to the book. It was like finding out about her life though I'd never been able to ask the right questions (a process described early in the narrative, too). And I can see parts of my growing up reflected in most of the second-generation characters.
But I like this book mainly for its wisdom, for the perspective Chang has gained through the process of writing these stories and how she shares that with the reader. It reminds me about the freedom we have here, to define our dreams however we want and do all we can to pursue them. (We're not forced to study biochemistry just because we're good students, and our culture helps give us the courage to change careers if we're not satisfied.) It's also interesting to see how the parents' experiences affect their children's lives in this area. Wei goes to New York to be a dancer, and Peter tries to pursue public policy instead of medical school. There's a line about a father who was so American that he encouraged his child "to go to Oberlin instead of Harvard" - perfectly characterized, I thought.
I thought this book was nicely written, other than the occasional awkward foreshadowing. The stories do jump around, but this is inevitable, and they are described clearly enough that they really aren't too hard to follow.
This is a relatively quick read, and definitely worth it - it paints an accurate picture of both generations' lives in the U.S. and throws in a nice China/Taiwan history lesson as well. It's definitely among my favorite "Chinese" books now, along with Mona in the Promised Land (Gish Jen) and Legacies (Bette Bao Lord).