In Jen’s latest (The Love Wife, 2004, etc.) a retired teacher—the daughter of an American missionary who abandoned organized Christianity and a Chinese father descended from Confucius—struggles to put her life back together after the deaths of her husband and best friend.
Hattie Kong, 65, has lived as an outsider in America since she was sent here from China after the Communist takeover in that country. After being widowed she moves to Riverlake, the New England vacation town where she spent summers as a girl. Two years later she is embedded in the community but remains deeply lonely, turning mainly to her dogs for companionship. So when a family of Cambodian refugees moves in next door, she can’t help involving herself in their troubled lives, giving them a wheelbarrow for their garden and befriending the teenage daughter, Sophy. But Hattie’s understanding of the family’s complex history is dangerously limited, and when Sophy becomes “born again” under the influence of a local woman whose brand of fundamental Christianity Hattie distrusts, the girl turns against not only Hattie but her troubled older brother with near tragic results. At the same time, retired biology professor Carter Hatch, the love of Hattie’s life, turns up in town to waken long-dormant and confusing emotions. Newly arrived in America from China, Hattie lived with the Hatches, a prominent family of intellectuals. Although she and Carter had only one sexual encounter before they married other people, they shared an unspoken bond as young biologists until he let her down professionally. Now they play a painful game of approach-avoidance. Meanwhile, Hattie’s Chinese relatives besiege her with requests that she re-bury her parents’ remains in the family’s Confucian cemetery for reasons she dismisses as superstitious.
With prickly yet endearing Hattie, readers ponder the meaning of faith, commitment, love and loyalty without being fed easy answers (except against the stereotypically villainous fundamentalist Christians). But the usually deft Jen has thrown too many characters into the stew, serving up a novel of ideas more easily admired than enjoyed.