A debut novel featuring a simple plot crammed with information—factual and emotional, conflicting and unreliable. The result is complicated, like real life.
Eighteen-year-old Ari was adopted as a baby from an orphanage in China; her mother, Charlie, raised her in San Francisco with ample input from her own sister, Les, and their mother, Gran. The three women present a nuanced take on what it means to be Chinese-American. Gran grew up privileged in China, moving to the U.S. after the Second Sino-Japanese War. She attended Bryn Mawr, married a Chinese man, cooked goose and stuffing every Christmas, opened a Chinese restaurant, married again, moved to Taipei and back. Gran’s life could fill its own book. Her daughters both entered the legal profession, neither marrying, with only Charlie bringing a child into the family. Charlie raised Ari among a minor mob of other WACDs—Western-Adopted Chinese Daughters—and their white parents, working to emphasize a heritage Charlie herself never had. The point of view moves among the women, including Ari, whose attitude toward her upbringing is scathing. But it hardly seems to matter. “I fixed my sights on that bleak beginning and ran straight toward it,” she says from the start. She leaves home twice: once to go to China, where she sinks into a violent depression, and then on a search for a father. Charlie, Les and Gran are devastated by her leaving, but as close as they are, there is little warmth between them. Their sniffing disapproval of each other’s handling of Ari drives them further apart. The novel questions the meaning of family, background and belonging.
Ma is a cagey writer, withholding and misdirecting at nearly every turn, which can be frustrating. Nonetheless, this is an impassioned, unapologetic look at tough, interesting subjects.