There’s been a bit of pre-publication brouhaha for Jade Chang’s debut, much more subdued that the constant shouting which can be so off-putting but just enough to put it on my radar. Set in 2008 with the financial world about to crash with the loudest of bangs, it’s about a family whose cosmetics mogul father suddenly finds himself bankrupt in a country he thought he’d made his own. He decides to claim his fabled ancestral land in China but first he needs to gather his family together.
Charles Wang is spitting tacks. The American dream has crashed to smithereens all around him, robbing him of his fortune and putting him out on the streets. This is not what he came to America from Taiwan for and worse, his misfortune turns out to be his own fault. Quickly dismissing that thought he sets about assembling his three children and whisking them off to China, a place he’s never set foot in himself, to wrest his family’s land from the Communists. He and his bemused second wife pack up his first wife’s powder blue 1980s Mercedes, lock up their Bel-air mansion for the last time and head off to pick up his sixteen-year-old daughter from her boarding school. Told to bring only the important things, Grace packs up her picture gallery of dead people, downloads her style blog and installs herself on the back seat soon to be joined by Andrew, not entirely sure about leaving his Arizona college but lured by the idea of open mic opportunities to air his standup routines en route. These four are heading for Charles’ eldest daughter’s farmhouse in upstate New York where she’s failed to escape her wastrel ex-lover and the disgrace of her latest art installation. An eventful journey ensues in which more than a few lessons are learned.
A road trip is a wonderful structure for a novel, lots of momentum and room for character development. Each member of the Wang family’s story is neatly woven into their odyssey, revealing much about their characters as it unfolds. Chang keeps her tone light while making some serious points along the way. It’s very funny with lots of throwaway lines – ‘I just wear a Che Guevera T-shirt. It doesn’t mean I know anything about actual Communists’ says Andrew – and there are some nice jibes at bleeding heart liberals buying their organic vegetables from a black farmer and feeling good about themselves. It’s a novel that screamed ‘movie’ at me, although of the indie rather than Hollywood variety, please. Really in the end, it’s all about family and connection. The message is simple – you may think lots of money makes you happy but it doesn’t – which Chang delivers in a thoroughly disarming and entertaining way.