In life, few stories are told the way they are in novels. There isn’t time while chatting over coffee to neatly lay out characters or slowly build up to a climax. Real life stories are fragmented. They are told between bites of a bagel and interrupted by cell phone rings. We go back and forth, we forget details and we are corrected by friends who see our lives unfold from another point of view.
This is what it feels like to read Gish Jen’s latest novel, “The Love Wife.” It is the story of the Wong family, a “new American family,” as a neighbor once drunkenly referred to them. Carnegie Wong is a first generation Chinese American married to Jane “Blondie” Wong, a Scottish-German-Irish “farm girl.” Together they have two adopted Asian daughters – Wendy and Lizzie – and a biological son, Bailey.
Narrated in a choral manner, with each character speaking from his or her point of view, the novel recounts what happens to the family when Carnegie’s mother stipulates in her will that her son and his wife take in a distant cousin from China. Purportedly there as a nanny, Lan disrupts the entire way of life for the content Wong family. Suddenly family and love are called into question as each member begins to examine his or her own identity.
For Blondie, the only non-Asian, this is all especially difficult as she begins to feel more and more an outsider within her own family. She is fiercely jealous of Lan, who has formed a tight bond with the daughters, even going so far as to give them new Chinese names. One evening during dinner, she catches a glimpse of the family in a mirror and sees herself as the only one that does not belong. Retreating into herself, she clings to her son Bailey, the only other member of the family she sees as being truly hers.
Carnegie is also struggling with the new arrival. He is fascinated by her and secretly begins to develop erotic thoughts. He delves into his roots by studying Chinese and grows increasingly obsessed with the love-hate relationship he had with his mother.
Mama Wong herself can be seen as the central character in this drama. An opinionated and severely demanding woman in life, she continues to impact the family even after her death. Her oppositions to Blondie (“everything a nut do, she do too”) and to the adoption of the children, (“that family look like not real”) echo in her absence and lead everyone to question whether or not it was all a big mistake.
In the hands of a less skillful writer, the multi-character narration could prove distracting. But Jen’s subtle treatment of the technique brings us in, making us feel like we are curled up on the couch listening as the characters whisper secrets in our ears. The potentially heavy social themes are made accessible to us since we experience them right along with the Wongs.
As the narrator changes, different suspicions and fears are revealed. The teenager’s thoughts are peppered with “likes” and adolescent insecurities, while Blondie tends to wonder if her language and actions are “politically correct.” Lan’s narratives are particularly revealing as they show her simultaneous disgust and fascination with American consumer culture. In fact, they show the ponderous influence that our society holds as she gradually – almost unwittingly – begins to adopt aspects of American pop culture that not even Blondie approves of or allows.
“The Love Wife” flows gracefully, with a surprising humor unexpected in a story that deals with such dark themes. The novel seems to fall a bit off track near the end, however, when a sudden series of melodramatic events including fires and a heart attack culminate in the revelation of a hidden secret from Mama Wong’s past.
It’s a forgivable transgression, however, as the final twist draws everything together and leaves the reader with a clear understanding of just how drastically the choices can change a person and their loved ones long after their death.