Monday, January 6, 2020

Review: The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

The American Dream. Anyone can come to America and through hard work, innovation, and perseverance, make a fortune. But what isn't often said is also true: anyone can lose that fortune too. In Jade Chang's novel The Wangs vs. the World, she creates a family who has lived the first part of the American Dream and are now faced with the far less appealing, generally unstated second part, the loss of everything.

Charles Wang moved to the US from Taiwan and created a cosmetics empire, earning fabulous riches in the process. He lives with his second wife, Barbra, and their housekeeper, Ama, in a palatial home in Los Angeles. Adult daughter Saina was a darling of the art world before her last show flopped and her fiance humiliated her, whereupon she used her trust fund and her earnings to buy herself a farmhouse in upstate New York. Son Andrew is in college, although to his father's chagrin, he dreams of being a comedian. Youngest daughter Grace, still in high school at an expensive boarding school, is a fashion blogger. As the novel opens though, Charles has lost his fortune. He leveraged everything he had against all expert advice, partly because of the recession and partly because of a poor business decision, so he's lost it all, home, cars, money, possessions, children's trust funds, everything. Packing his wife and housekeeper into the secondhand car he gave Ama years ago and the only one not repossessed, they head out from LA to pick up Andrew and Grace (paying for their schools is out of the question now) and drop Ama off at her daughter's house on their way across the country to Saina, who still has a home and money they can live off of. Along the way, outrageous misadventures ensue and Charles' past is explained even as his future plan, to return to a China he's never seen and reclaim his stolen ancestral lands to make a new start comes into focus.

This is both an extended road trip novel and a dysfunctional rich people novel with a dash of the immigrant experience thrown in. The complications each of the Wangs face and their reaction to their new reality could be heartbreaking or entertaining depending on how the reader feels about the characters. Unfortunately, the characters aren't terribly likable, coming off as selfish and entitled. In fact, Charles is a bit underhanded and proud while Barbra is focused and angry. The siblings aren't much better but their interactions with each other and their reading of their new, unwanted situations, are a bright spot in the novel. This is billed as a deeply funny novel and there are in fact ridiculous situations but the humor just didn't land. The cross country journey, where each Wang is forced to discover who they are, is interrupted by chapters about Saina and the life she's made away from the rest of the family, mistakes, heartaches, and all.  Despite the long road trip, this is not a book centered on plot.  It is instead a book about relationship.  The narration here is third person limited with each character being the focus of their own chapters, giving the reader insight into the effects of this financial reversal on all of the Wangs, no matter what they might say to each other, and giving a fully rounded picture of the family as a whole and as individuals. Ultimately well written, I didn't find the promised humor and it lacked something until the final chapters. In the end though, it found at least a bit of heart.

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