Cultural exchange breeds more misunderstanding than enlightenment in this ambitious debut novel from the author of the collection Lucky Girls (2003).
When its title character Yuan Zhao arrives from China in Beverly Hills, the differing reactions of his host family ironically underscore his uncertain status as an artist subjected to political persecution (for his involvement with a subversive arts magazine and proscribed performance art). Fortyish matron “Cece” (Cecelia) warmly welcomes an opportunity to lavish on a deserving guest affection declined by husband Gordon (a psychology professor and bestselling author), with whom she languishes in a sexless marriage. Their teenagers Olivia (an ardent student of dance) and Max (a possibly suicidal underachieving malcontent) scarcely register any life beyond their own introverted orbits. Gordon’s brother Phil, a globetrotting egotist and unworthy lover of superior women (including the guilty Cece) masquerades as a hotshot scriptwriter while doing what he does best: ruin other people’s lives. The character seemingly best suited to understand and communicate with “the dissident,” Gordon’s sister Joan, is a successful novelist for whom human relationships are more a source of material than a sphere she’ll consent to inhabit. The complex interrelations of these variously beautiful, privileged people form a fascinating counterpoint to the moving story of Yuan Zhao’s embattled apprenticeship and largely wasted life (for, despite the respect of people who believe his existence more meaningful than their own, he struggles with the nagging knowledge that “There was a time . . . when I might have made sacrifices for art, and chose not to.” The book is significantly flawed, by awkwardly handled exposition and several uncomfortably close echoes of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.
Still, its vivid characters and page-turning plot make it a more than commendable first novel.