Charles Wang had the perfect American success story. He came to the U.S. from Taiwan, where his family had lived since evacuating China, and he turned his father’s small urea-manufacturing business into a major cosmetics empire. But that was before the 2008 crash. All of a sudden, he and his family had nothing, and Charles began longing for China and family property lost decades ago. So he concocts a plan to get his children back together and get them all back to China, where some private land ownership is now allowed.
The three children—Saina, Andrew, and Grace—are all old enough to have ideas of their own. Saina is a recently disgraced performance artist who’s just bought a house in rural New York. Andrew is in college and has dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. And Grace, away in boarding school, is making a name for herself as a fashion maven on Instagram. The family also includes Barbra, Charles’s second wife, a woman he met briefly in Taiwan who came back into his life after his first wife died.
This novels is a comedy, and author Jade Chang pokes gentle fun at all her characters. It’s rarely feels mean-spirited, however. And even when it does, the targeted character gets a moment of triumph to make up for it. For example, Grace seems shallow and a little ridiculous when we first meet her. When being whisked away from school by her father, she decides to pack the celebrity pictures and inspirational images from her bulletin board instead of adequate clothes. Later, however, we learn that she has genuine talent. Saina and Andrew’s talent in their fields is less clear, but the novel seems to recognize that they are still figuring themselves out.
Personally, I found the children’s stories of learning about themselves to be more compelling than Charles’s longing for China. But, as I think about it, maybe his story isn’t so different from theirs. He’s had this idea of who he is, an American success story, and that rug has been pulled out from under him. Now, he’s creating a different vision of himself as a Chinese landowner.
This is a gently comic and enjoyable book that I’m glad to have read. It’s not a book that will likely land on my own best-of-the-year list, but it was still worth my time.