Ng's spare, unpretentious debut explores turmoil in a Chinese- American family. Narrator Leila circles back and forth in time as she tries to understand her sister Ona's suicide and to relieve the family guilt. Leila was always problem-solver and go-between (while growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown) for her mother, stepfather Leon, and the English-speaking world. Now Leon, a merchant seaman with a habit of shipping out at times of family crisis, has moved into a seedy hotel and seems well on the way to becoming a derelict. He blames himself for bringing bad luck: He never fulfilled his promise to have the bones of his ``paper father'' reinterred in China. Mah feels responsible, too: for an adulterous affair with the sweatshop boss and for arranging Leon's failed business venture with the swindling Ong family—Ona, in love with the Ong son, was caught in the middle. Meanwhile, youngest sister Nina lives in N.Y.C. and keeps her distance from family. During a visit to Nina, Leila and her longtime lover Mason Louie—a sexy, unfailingly supportive auto mechanic—finally marry at City Hall, cheating Mah out of the traditional celebration. Leila reveals secrets in a mostly matter-of-fact voice, eventually restating Leon's belief: ``...sorrow moves through the heart the way a ship moves through the ocean. Ships are massive, but the ocean has simple superiority.'' Besides, ``the heart never travels''— reassurance that Leila can move on without leaving family and past behind. A complicated, sometimes moving, if necessarily inconclusive, story; but the telling—through simple declarative statements and sentence fragments—too often undercuts the implied complexity of emotion.
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