In her third novel, Gish Jen takes big chances. The Love Wife is a more emotionally ambitious variation on themes explored in earlier works—racism, identity, the overwrought cacophony of multicultural families with their cobbled-together identities, their efforts to endure while equally threatened by the immigrant outsider and the poisons of the you-can-have-it-all American Dream. This time, however, Jen’s family symphony, like the fractured cultures it embodies, comes to us fast-paced and dialogue-saturated, a luscious chorale, narrated, fugue-like, by each of the central characters in the quirky, marvelously seductive Wong family. Flashing between back-story and suburban present, this exuberance of voices also directly addresses the reader—a risky venture these days for any novelist.
Jen’s gamble pays off, starting with Mama Wong, a woman “too spicy” for the Chinese Cultural Revolution, who swims the shark-infested waters from the Mainland to Hong Kong and never looks back. “So many people have no story,” she tells her son, aptly named Carnegie, “but we have a story. A big life, a big story. Every day going up up up!” She makes a fortune in real estate, succumbs to Alzheimer’s, and bequeaths to her son and his Anglo wife Blondie a distant relative from China as a nanny for their children—or, Blondie suspects, as the Chinese wife Mama Wong always wanted Carnegie to marry.
Lanlan’s arrival immediately destabilizes Carnegie’s “mixed-up soup du jour” family. Their two adopted Chinese daughters—tattooed, nose-ringed, dyed-blonde, fifteen-year old Lizzie and sensitive, smart, nine-year old Wendy—bond almost immediately with the mysterious Lan, whose name means “orchid,” a far botanical cry from the twelve-foot-tall sunflowers towering over Blondie’s garden. Recognizing themselves in her, the children love her “Chinese authenticity,” her harrowing stories about life during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese treats she cooks for them, and the fact that, unlike their mother, she lets them watch TV while they do their homework. Nor is Carnegie immune. While Lan is busy trading in her quaint, self-effacing, passive-aggressive Chinese asceticism for a gung-ho American-style acquisitiveness far beyond anything the liberal Blondie would tolerate, Carnegie surfs for Chinese poetry on the web and dreams erotically of Lan and his Chinese roots. The final straw comes when the Wongs’ “bio” baby son weans himself, leaving Blondie even more the outsider, “the all-American phony,” as Lizzie calls her, the one large, ungainly, clog-wearing Caucasian in the household.
Jen’s affection for her characters is palpable, her ear pitch-perfect, her themes always filtered through the intimately observed pageant of the Wongs’ personal relationships—their hopes and delusions, jealousies and rebellions, generosity and love. Although the final section is weakened by melodrama and by too many gratuitous switches in voice, The Love Wife is a human comedy worthy of Balzac, an exuberant tribute to the complexity, staying power, and resilience of the family. It’s also a great read.
Reviewed by Abby Pollak