- Series: Vintage Contemporaries
- Paperback: 480 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (October 4, 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0307473309
- ISBN-13: 978-0307473301
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,095,980 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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World and Town (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – October 4, 2011
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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.
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Jen's prose is both blunt and dense, as exemplified by the novel's first few sentences:
"Last week, a family moved in down the hill--Cambodian. They plan to build themselves a little house, people say. Hoping that the house will--ta daah!--become a home. Well, that's not so simple, Hattie happens to know. But never mind; this is an age of flux. She, Hattie Kong, came from China; her neighbors from Cambodia; is there anyone not coming from somewhere?"
Jen's writing has the satisfying heft of 9-grain bread, but it's lightened with enough humor to avoid being overly weighty. The details of her characters' lives and relationships are revealed slowly and obliquely. Jen leaves much unsaid, trusting in her readers to pay attention. Such writing rewards close and patient reading. World and Town is a masterful depiction of the world from the perspective of a small town.
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Hattie, the center of the novel, is a woman living through the last chapter of...Read more