Like the Emerald City in Oz, contemporary Shanghai provides the backdrop for an examination of the clash between old and new lifestyles and values in Tan’s debut novel.
Upon moving back to mainland China after more than 20 years in America, the Zhens finds themselves ill at ease in their new opulent and coddled setting. Husband Wei becomes unhappy with his work for a multinational advertising firm, while the previously industrious Lina settles into the unfamiliar role of taitai, a housewife with no housewifely duties and an infinite amount of time to devote to shopping and gossipy meals. Karen, their adolescent daughter, spends most of the year at an American boarding school in order to enjoy the purported advantages of “American privilege.” Wei and Lina are strangers to Shanghai themselves, having shared modest beginnings in Suzhou, a silk-farming town. The silent witness to the Zhens’ quietly uncomfortable household is Sunny, an observant housekeeper from rural Hefei. When the balance of the Zhens’ carefully calibrated domesticity is disrupted by the reappearance of Wei’s long-out-of-touch brother, Qiang, the assumptions that underpin the family’s fragile equilibrium are tested. In the Zhen household, Tan brings us a microcosm of the conflicts among China’s larger populations: residents versus expatriates, wealthy versus poor, urban and commercial versus rural and agrarian. Humming quietly beneath the surface of the day-to-day microdrama in the Zhens’ home is the motif of the disappearance of Lina’s talismanic ivory bracelet, the story of which reflects the rivalries between more than one set of characters in this portrait of people learning how to live after a period of immense repression.
Tan examines the tension behind the facade of the moneyed lifestyle in a still-evolving post-Mao Shanghai, where everyone seems to be an expat in their own country.