Fan Wu (February Flowers, 2007) portrays two sisters on divergent life paths earnestly seeking common ground after their mother arrives in San Francisco from China.
Mary Chang lives comfortably in Silicon Valley, though she suffers the abuse of her harridan boss at a tech firm, and her husband works exceedingly long hours at a pre-IPO startup. (It’s 2000, and the dot-com boom is just going bust.) Her younger sister Ingrid struggles to make ends meet in New York as a translator and tour guide for Chinese visitors while trying to launch a career as a fiction writer. Mary feels Ingrid is flighty and doesn’t respect the financial support she gave when Ingrid left China for the United States as a college student; Ingrid thinks Mary is too settled and tried to force her sister’s career path. To help reconcile this tiff comes their mother, Wang Fenglan, whose arrival from China inspires Ingrid to move to San Francisco. That brings mother and daughters geographically and emotionally closer, but not in any especially compelling fashion. The book’s stiff structure and prose make it feel like an assemblage of set pieces in which each character advances by half-measures: Mary nearly has an affair with an old friend from China; Ingrid has a promising coffee date with a literary agent; Wang gets used to her new American neighborhood and enjoys spending time with Mary’s son. To liven up these modest incidents, Fan Wu has her characters look back. Wang recalls the violence of the Cultural Revolution, while Ingrid remembers her experiences during the Tiananmen Square protests. Some of those recollections are vividly turned, but the present-day story feels threadbare. It’s also quite nearly plotless; what seems to be a bombshell revelation about the family, introduced about halfway through, is largely neglected.
The author nicely inhabits her three main characters but rarely risks escalating the tensions among them.