A sobering look at the dark side of extreme wealth among Chinese families in Indonesia.
Tsao's (The More Known World, 2017, etc.) novel begins in the aftermath of a crime as the narrator, Doll, tries to understand what has caused her sister, Estella, to poison everyone in their rich, extended Chinese Indonesian family. At first the novel takes a Crazy Rich Asians–esque satirical tone celebrating the Sulinado family's wealth, power, and, above all, material possessions as Doll recalls a life of great privilege. However, after Doll and Estella move from Jakarta to Berkeley, California, to attend college, the tone deepens. The middle part of the novel becomes a sly study of the stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans that the sisters face for the first time as minorities in the United States. Still the sisters are able to enjoy their relative freedom and come to study entomology, which later becomes the inspiration for business success for Doll. Meantime, Estella starts dating another rich overseas Chinese Indonesian student, a quiet young man named Leonard Angsono, whose possessiveness is at first charming. By the time Estella realizes that Leonard's insecurity and need to control her are dangerous, she is so invested in the relationship that she doesn't know how to save herself. Tsao's writing shines when she depicts the ways that the two wealthy families choose to ignore domestic abuse in their midst, revealing the misogyny at the heart of the patriarchal clans. As Doll recalls, "A marriage alliance with the Angsonos would benefit our fortunes. It would pave the way for joint ventures and favorable partnerships with Leonard's clan...." As the novel races toward its violent denouement, the tone changes again, however, and veers back into broad satire. Tsao was born in California but lived in Singapore and Indonesia in her childhood.
Readers may be thrown by the abrupt shifts in tone, but Tsao's depiction of domestic abuse is powerful.