Since the day of his birth, Boston-born Alex Cohen has been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and run the family shoe factory in southern China.
Now 26, Alex is caught between his desire to oversee a company where workers are respected and operations follow the latest energy efficiency standards and, at the same time, keep his money-worshipping father happy. It’s impossible. Dad is almost a caricature, soulless, greedy, opportunistic, and crass. He’s proud that his sweatshop is highly profitable and that his merchandise is sold in countless U.S. department stores. He’s also pleased by his ability to ingratiate himself with the corrupt, easily bribed politicians who are happy to look the other way on health and safety standards. At first, Alex finds his father’s modus operandi simply disagreeable. But after a worker kills herself because she can no longer take the constant abuse meted out by the company’s hard-driving overseers, Alex realizes that things have to change, and fast. As he gets to know Ivy, a somewhat older college-educated worker who intends to organize the plant, and then becomes romantically entangled with her, he not only learns about the international struggle for human rights, but has to parse for himself the never-ending debate over whether nonviolence can succeed in creating social change. The legacy of the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square is vividly rendered, and Ivy’s eyewitness account leaves Alex shaken. In concert with his employee’s suicide, it also helps propel the inevitable confrontation between father and son. The showdown is tense, if predictable, and leaves both men with a clear understanding that business as usual is no longer possible. Although this is a fascinating look at China’s race for economic growth, the Jewish businessman stereotype is unsettling and makes this first novel less compelling than it could be.
Though this book can be nuanced and engaging, it's ultimately disappointing.