Personal issues underlie and complicate the ideals of an international relief organization in Lee’s ruminative, thoughtful first novel.
Narrator Justine Laxness is herself a citizen of two cultures: China, where she spent much of her childhood as the daughter of wealthy missionary parents, and New York City, where she works (in 1993) for the nonprofit Aquinas Foundation, dedicated “to promot[ing] the intersection of Eastern and Western medicine” throughout the world. Aquinas’s plans are threatened by a Chinese government plan to build a “dam extension” on the Yangtze River, which would flood land reserved for a state-of-the-art “healing center.” And Justine’s own good will becomes increasingly enervated, by conflicts with disapproving bureaucrats, publicity-hungry celebrity donors, the IRS—and her professional relationship with, and helpless love for, her boss Peter (whose own past in China intersects glancingly with her own). Lee conjures affecting images of city vistas and (especially) the embracing presence of the Hudson River, observing such scenes with a deft balance of clinical precision and romantic hyperbole (e.g., demolished “houses come down, crouching at first like injured, long-legged animals, then fully kneeling, bowing their shoulders to the earth”). She also has a knack for introducing new characters at effectively spaced intervals—hatching one nice sequence in which Justine travels to Saskatchewan, where an earth-friendly original script written by her former college friend James is being filmed. But the novel is filled with promising scraps of conflict that are not fully developed—a partial exception being the fiscal brouhaha generated by Justine’s impulsive (and not-quite-credible) decision to invest a chunk of Aquinas’s dwindling capital in the aforementioned film. But we don’t learn enough about her to be sure of this. Only the indirectly characterized Peter, an enigmatic combination of visionary idealist and introverted egoist, seems fully real.
Too many fragments, not enough narrative.