The fate and fortunes of a Sino-Hawaiian family are altered by bad romantic choices.
Wong’s first novel begins as members of the Leong family, the wealthiest and most influential clan on the island of Oahu, converge for a funeral in 1964. From there, the story, related by various family members, branches out to cover six decades and three generations as the Leong family curse takes shape. In 1900, Hong, a widowed refugee from the Boxer Rebellion, treks miles to find refuge in the home of her brother-in-law, Frank Leong, a shipping magnate. The family migrates to Hawaii, and Leong builds a lavish mansion in the shadow of the volcano Diamond Head for his beloved wife, Lin, and their son, Bohai. Amy Chan, 20-year-old eldest daughter of an impoverished photographer and his harried wife, is working in her father’s shop when Pearl Harbor and the advent of World War II improve the family’s prospects. Soldiers are clamoring for photo portraits before being shipped out, and Henry, Amy’s forgotten childhood sweetheart, is among them. The two become engaged, but all that changes when the Leongs hire the Chans to photograph their family. Lin seizes on the fetching Amy as the solution for her shy, studious son Bohai’s confirmed bachelorhood. (He is now 33.) Amy’s mother convinces her that marrying Henry would be a mistake: She herself had married for love and now lived in a basement with a feckless husband and Amy’s nine siblings. After receiving an ambiguous letter from Henry, who is stationed overseas, Amy is persuaded to marry Bohai. Her decision triggers a series of disasters for the Leong family. The enigmatic Hong and Amy's daughter, Theresa, 18 and pregnant out of wedlock, act as bellwethers and interpreters of the family’s downfall. The novel’s many diversions and diffuse focus make for an unwieldy structure that cannot support the explosive closing revelations. Nevertheless, Wong’s pellucid prose style keeps the pages turning.
Although it reaches for an inevitability it doesn’t achieve, a promising debut.