Gish Jen

"The Love Wife"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 12, 2004)

"I find you nice Chinese girl, she is going to make everybody feel so nice. You like sports, she is going to watch sports. You like cars, she will like cars. She is going to cook nice food, and one day, you watch, she is going to take care your old mommy too."

The Love Wife by Gish Jen

When Carnegie Wong's mother, the outrageous Mama Wong, discovers that Carnegie is going to marry Janie Bailey, the descendant of Scottish/German immigrants, she offers all manner of bribes if Carnegie will change his mind. Nevertheless, he marries the woman he loves, who instantly accepts the Chinese-American daughter Carnegie has adopted on his own. Life with Mama Wong never gets much better for "Blondie," however, even after Mama Wong's death. After fourteen years of happy marriage, another adopted daughter from China, and a "half half" biological child, Blondie and Carnegie suddenly find their home life turned upside down with the arrival of Lanlan, a 46-year-old "cousin" from China, previously unknown. She has arrived at their home through the machinations of Mama Wong—from beyond the grave.

No one is quite sure why Lan is moving in with them, since she has entered the country on a student visa to study English, but she becomes a part-time nanny during the hours when Blondie and Carnegie are working and she herself is not in school. Wendy, a precocious nine-year-old, and fifteen-year-old Lizzy, with her blond-streaked hair, nose ring, and henna tattoos, take to Lan immediately, as she tells them stories about her life in China, including the gruesome death of her father, makes Chinese snacks and meals, and appeals to their emotions, emphasizing the fact that Chinese people suffer and make sacrifices. The children rally to her side and respond to the fact that she is like a "real" mother, one who, unlike Blondie, looks like them. Lan also gives them far freer rein to do what they want to do, not necessarily what they ought to do. As Lizzy says to Blondie, "If you were my real mother, you'd be like Lanlan."

The narrative emerges as each of the main characters comments individually on what is happening, while at the same time each character calls up memories of the past. In bright, breezy language and a great deal of slang, each member of the family reveals his/her own quirky personality, offbeat relationships, and search for identity. Many of the conflicts within the novel reflect cultural confusion and misunderstanding. Lan's initial resentment of Blondie, for example, comes about because Blondie has provided her with her own apartment above the barn. Lan reveals that this makes her feel like a servant, and she responds by refusing to eat with the family. As the minutiae of family life is revealed, and as the children in this racially mixed family try to come to some understanding of their cultural identity, Lan continues to chip away at the family's ties with Blondie. It begins to look as if Mama Wong may ultimately triumph in finding Carnegie a Chinese "love wife."

Fast-paced and focused on the smallest details of everyday life, the novel is filled with ususual images and observations, which make the characters easy to visualize. The men in Blondie's family "look as though they were being pushed through the tunnel of time by a firm hand at their lower backs." The current generation of Blondie's family, which volunteers in soup kitchens, sings carols in hospitals at Christmas, and protests local program cuts, is different from their ancestors, pacifists who emigrated to America rather than fight in a German war. "We felt ourselves to be votive lights, at best," Blondie explains, "if compared with the original bonfires." Mama Wong's voice, at one point, "miraculously replumped, like an apparently dead plant that's finally been watered."

The focus on specific details and descriptions, however, does not necessarily make the characters come alive. Though they speak for themselves and tell us how they feel, they do not give us many clues about their motivations. Carnegie has been happily married for fourteen years and has firmly stood his ground against his mother for years, so his attraction to Lan and her point of view is both baffling and inconsistent with what we know of him. We learn that Blondie is a high-powered executive at a major company, and we see her as an assured and self-confident person, yet instead of putting her foot down to protect her marriage and family against Lan, an intruder, she simply allows herself to be victimized. We never know why Lan seems so determined to drive Blondie away from the house. Lizzy and Wendy have amazingly tolerant parents who have loved them both unconditionally, and neither child is seriously rebellious, yet we are supposed to believe that both of these girls would actually tell Blondie, the only mother they have ever known, that they would prefer a "real" mother "like Lanlan."

In the last third of the book, the author introduces several new characters and shifts the focus from the limited story of Lanlan's effect on the Wong family to several subplots involving other "cultural" issues--episodes involving physical abuse and violence, the failure of a small business, and prejudice against immigrants in rural Maine. These episodes are highly dramatic, even sensational, but they feel tacked on to provide a climax of greater significance than the domestic issues which have been the focus to this point.

With its unusual approach, eccentric characters, and humor, however, the novel is lively and entertaining, and Gish Jen's emphasis on cultural identity will strike a sympathetic chord with a large portion of the American population. Exuberant and fast-paced, this novel will entertain a wide audience.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Love Wife at RandomHouse.com



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About the Author:

Gish JenGish Jen was born in 1955. She is a second-generation Chinese American (Her parents immigrated from Shangha in the 1940s), raised in the large Jewish community of Scarsdale, New York. She received a degree in English from Harvard University; then, attended business school at Stanford, which she dropped out of. Jen applied and was accepted to the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, from which she received an M. F. A. in 1983. After a stint in Silicon Valley where her husband David O’Connor worked for Apple Computer, the couple moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jen began working on her first novel, Typical American , while she had a fellowship at Radcliffe College’s Bunting Institute.

The quirky Chang family first appeared in her novel Typical American, and again in the sequel, Mona in the Promised Land. Her novels and short stories frequently revisit the American dream, and her characters puzzle out their ethnic identity in touching, comic ways. One of the short stories from Who's Irish? also appeared in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. Her honors include the Lannan Award for Fiction and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two children.

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