A sprawling, multicharacter novel alternates between 2002 and 2004 while circling big themes.
In 2002, Marin Choo leaves her job at a San Francisco development bank and moves to Borneo to help protect orangutans from palm oil developers. Then, in 2004, she leaves Borneo and returns to the development bank, although she later quits and helps promote an undiscovered, genius painter. Meanwhile, Marin’s father, Walter, a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, has been pressured to up his sales. Among other secondary characters, Sun also includes about two dozen minor characters that the reader needs to keep straight. However, the net is wide but shallow. Readers might learn a bit about “big pharma,” the Bay Area art scene or orangutans, but in the end, the novel doesn’t seem to be about much of anything. There are numerous scenarios and characters with the potential for drama, romance and mystery, yet for some reason the narrative shies away from plot, replacing story with additional minor characters and inconsequential conversations that don’t advance the story. Small bubbles of plot emerge—Walter seems pressured by a new law limiting the sale of pharmaceuticals; Marin seems devastated by the death of the orangutans; questions start to arise about an art prodigy; one character wrestles with revealing his sexuality—yet nearly all of the conflict or tension in the book is too easily resolved. There are too many characters to follow down too many paths and not enough story or thematic resonance to hold the book together. At times, though, Sun’s writing shines in her dialogue and descriptions. Also, some impressive research helps convincingly depict the various settings. Yet the choice of alternating between two timelines seems random; there’s not enough difference between Marin in 2002 and Marin in 2004 to warrant the constant, confusing jumps across the years and the continents.
A broad novel stretched too thin.