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by Gish Jen

Pub Date: Sept. 17th, 2004
ISBN: 1-4000-4213-5
Publisher: Knopf

Psychologically and politically astute tale of American multicultural family life.

When Lan Lin arrives from China in 1999 to work as a nanny for her distant cousin Carnegie Wong, Carnegie and his wife Blondie have two adopted Asian-American daughters, Lizzy and Wendy, and a 13-month-old biological son, Bailey. Fifteen years earlier, Janie Bailey fell in love with Carnegie when he decided to adopt abandoned baby Lizzy; when they married, implacable Mama Wong saddled Janie with the pejorative nickname Blondie to indicate her disapproval of her son’s marrying a white woman. The couple adopted Wendy from China six years later, and, by the time Lan arrives, the Wongs seem happy if stressed-out, with both parents working, unreliable part-time help, and Lizzy’s teenage surliness exacerbated by the minor but real tensions of a multiracial family. The recently deceased Mama Wong arranged in her will for Lan to care for their children, though Blondie suspects her real motive was to provide Carnegie with “the wife you should have married.” As things circle through time via first-person commentary from Lan and all the Wongs (except Bailey), we see the nanny skillfully manipulating the girls and Carnegie to alienate them from Blondie. It’s not clear if this is deliberate, or if Lan’s fatalistic, distinctly Chinese personality simply throws into unflattering relief Blondie’s slightly facile warmth as the product of a privileged white family her husband and daughters feel they can’t completely join. Jen’s eye for the complexities of American life is shrewd, her characters utterly believable as a series of catastrophic events prompt the family’s breakup—with a tentative reconciliation at the hospital where Carnegie is undergoing heart surgery. But the knowledge that “this world can disappear like any other” can’t be lightly dismissed in a novel so surprisingly dark despite some wonderful humor.

Well wrought and admirably tough-minded, though readers charmed by Jen’s earlier, easier work (Mona in the Promised Land, 1996, etc.) may find this one more of a challenge.