The story of a Chinese immigrant boy is eclipsed by that of his mother’s unhappy marriage.
Here they come, fresh off the flight from China: The father, Ba, the mother, Ma, and their only child, unnamed; we’ll call him Son. Son is 5, the same age the Chinese-American author was on his arrival in the U.S.; the novel has a strong autobiographical flavor. They’re accompanied by Ba’s two brothers and their families, all of them sponsored by the fourth and oldest brother, Uncle Hu, who’s an immigrant success story. He owns two profitable restaurants, and his sponsorship is self-serving; he will employ his brothers as short-order cooks. In an unnamed city's Chinatown, they’ll live in a cramped tenement apartment where territorial disputes break out. Back home, Son taught himself with audiotapes, and he’s smart enough to enter first grade but finds school traumatic; he’s never been separated from Ma before. His rites of passage include a terrifying encounter with the school bully and friendship with a little girl. Then the focus shifts to Ma and her bitter quarrels with her husband. She accuses him of hiding his earnings; he taunts her with divorce. Ma, who’s treated sympathetically, complains to her beloved sister in China in a series of phone calls; this is about as interesting as listening in on a party line. Out of left field, the author inserts the story of another brother, Lone Eye, detailing how the bed-hopping lady’s man got his name (wrong bed, angry husband). There are more flashbacks, and a trip back to China for Ma, but the novel doesn’t break out of the stifling family circle to explore the wider world beyond.
A family drama that refuses to jell.