Tag Archives: The Wangs vs. the Wolrd

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2017: Part One

Cover imageThere’s a fair old mix of attention-snagging titles published in paperback this June. I’ll start with one that was hotly anticipated in hardback: Peter Ho Davies’ The Fortunes, his first novel since the much-lauded The Welsh Girl back in 2007. Spanning 150 years, Davies’ novel explores the Chinese-American experience through the lens of four characters: Ah Ling, the son of a prostitute, sent alone to California as a young boy in the 1860s; Anna Mae Wong, the first Chinese Hollywood movie star; Vincent Chin murdered in 1982 just because he looked Japanese and John Ling Smith, visiting America to adopt a child. Apparently, Davies has mixed real and fictional characters, drawing on his own mixed-race experience in what sounds like fascinating read, and that’s a great jacket.

Jade Chang’s The Wangs Vs the World looks at Chinese-Americans in a very different way. 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, taking off on a road trip across the States in his first wife’s powder blue 1980s Mercedes. Chang makes some serious points along the way in this funny, entertaining novel.Cover image

Families – albeit a hugely dysfunctional one – and money are also the themes which run through Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest. The Plumbs have been counting on a windfall from the fund their father set up for them many years ago. What the financially compromised younger siblings have not been expecting is the plundering of their treasured Nest by their mother to get their eldest brother Leo out of trouble. Sweeney’s novel follows these four over the three months after Leo gets out of rehab until the longed-for payout day. A well-turned out, entertaining and absorbing piece of fiction which quietly delivers a serious message about money and expectations.

Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk also has a foot in dysfunctional family territory, exploring ‘the violently primal bond between mother and daughter’ according to its publishers. It’s set in Spain where the daughter has taken her mother to an alternative clinic in the hope of discovering a cure for her paralysis which may or may not be psychologically induced. While her mother undergoes a series of odd treatments, the daughter becomes caught up in ‘the seductive mercurial games of those around her’. That synopsis isn’t entirely up my street but Levy has been praised by so many people whose opinions I trust that it’s worth a try.

Cover imageI’ll end this first June paperback instalment with Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop, about colleagues so immersed in each other’s lives they come to seem like family. The socially awkward Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside the taciturn Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. As these two stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister Masayo cheers them on from the side lines. Written in quietly understated prose infused with a gentle humour, Kawakami’s novel is an absolute delight. One of my favourite books of last year. it’s a reminder that joy can to be found in the most prosaic of lives.

A click on a title will take you to my review  for The Wangs Vs the World, The Nest and The Nakano Thrift Shop or to a more detailed synopsis for those I haven’t yet read, should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new titles they’re here.  Second paperback batch to follow shortly…

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang: A smart, funny road trip of a novel

Cover imageThere’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.