A sensitively written portrayal of a Chinese American family with many secrets and a serious failure to communicate. Ling Tang has been widowed for nearly a year, but can’t get past the pain of a brittle marriage and two adult children who can’t communicate with her, each other, or their significant others. The story is told from the varying perspectives of Ling and her children Emily and Michael, and the rawness of their damaged lives is tangible and sometimes hard to take, but she offers the reader a broad and colorful canvas and much to think on.
Emily is an immigration lawyer who is working out of a sense of duty to her parents’ immigrant status more than out of any love for the law. Her marriage to Julien, a non-Asian, is fraught with tension, as he wants children and she doesn’t; he loves their sprawling home and she feels alienated in her own house; he enjoys domesticity and she loathes it. Michael, meanwhile, has little to no relationship with his mom or sister, had a soul-killing relationship with his dad, and has been bearing the guilty burden of his own homosexuality since his teen years. His self-destructiveness is painful to see.
Things come to a head when Michael decides to pursue a piece of his father’s past back in China, and the gradual revelation of the source of his father’s own self-hatred enables Michael’s own healing—and, one hopes, that of his family–to finally begin. Along the way, we get a detailed and beautifully presented view of China, past and present. As someone who has been to China’s hinterlands as Michael does in the book, I especially appreciated the authenticity and poignancy of much of Lee’s descriptions.
While none of the characters in this story are especially loveable, the tangled web of their lives is effectively drawn and ultimately teased apart. Author Lee not only gives us a penetrating look at mother-daughter/father-son relationships, but also the difficulties of growing up “different,” whether as an ethnic, religious or sexual minority. Lee’s writing is sometimes encumbered by awkward leaps forward and backward in time and I found her sexually explicit scenes to be an unnecessary distraction, but she does a masterful job of presenting us with the plight of the immigrant in making the cultural, economic and legal adjustments to life in a strange new world.