Gish Jen's The Love Wife (2004) is an ambitious and difficult project that works its way to success. The second half of this fairly big novel (378 pages) is more engrossing than the first as the investments of both writer and reader pay off. In any project this big there are differences among passages and sections of the book, as well as bits of narrative business that are more the product of organization than of inspiration. It's great to be inspired but harder to apply the writer's art to the exposition of ideas in a workmanlike way that sustains the reader's pleasure as well as their interest. In this case my experience was that the novel got better, the characters more finely drawn, as Gish Jen settled down into her outline and let everyone live it out.
This is a "family saga" novel with an intellectual bent that does not always bother to conceal itself. Several interrelated themes are explored: the Chinese-American experience, adoption and identity, East-West culture clash and interracial marriage are all up on the board. It is a very good example of modern writing by people with strong ethnic identities who are also lifelong inhabitants of the secular Western world; Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat and of course Amy Tan are other examples.
We might call this the "culture mash" genre. The point is not to polarize between reified cultures but to explore for insights into the human condition as diverse characters have to deal with people from both inside and outside of their traditional communities. This exploration is inevitably subversive of both (or all, if more than two) of the cultural and social traditions that are being "mashed." It is a delicate business. Too much stereotyping achieves the opposite of the intended effect. There is a fine line between saying something parodic and saying something offensive. On the other hand there is a temptation to phony symmetry: having "good" and "bad" characters for each "type." A certain fearlessness is required.
Here is the story of the marriage of Carnegie Wong, computer software-writing son of the immigrant and self-made real estate success Mama Wong, and Blondie Bailey, third-or-fifth-or-so generation WASP with roots in New England and a family place in Maine (Gish Jen lives in Massachusetts). When they meet Carnegie has already adopted Lizzy, a girl of mixed Asian inheritance (apparently a Chinese-Japanese mix, and adopted from China, thus perhaps the descendant of a Japanese soldier). Together they adopt Wendy, also from China, and some years later, as the girls are entering their teens, they unexpectedly have Bailey, their biological son (one doesn't say "natural" in adoption etiquette).
All is reasonably well for this prosperous suburban family (Blondie has a professional job as well) until the death of Mama Wong leads through a series of circumstances, some engineered by Mama Wong from beyond the grave, to the arrival of Lanlan, who the Wongs bring out of China and employ as a nanny for the children, installed in an apartment above the barn/garage. Lan is Carnegie and Blondie's age and originally from something like their social class, with childhood memories of a beautiful home and garden where she lived with her scholar father. With the "Cultural Revolution" of the 60s came the murder of her father and her own transportation to a rough "reeducation" town far away. Her relatives, including Mama Wong, have worked carefully to get her out of China. Now she finds herself the nanny for the affluent and interracial Wongs.
The narration of the novel is organized by name tags - "Carnegie/," "Blondie/," "Lan/," and also including Lizzy and Wendy, denoting whose first-person narrative voice we are hearing. Developing different voices this way is an exceedingly difficult thing to do. There is the problem of inhabiting disparate souls, but also the more basic problem of having a wide enough linguistic and psychological compass to make the voices distinct. In this Gish Jen is not entirely successful although the bilingual circumstances help (Gish Jen knows Chinese and gives us a generous helping). She does give us a very believable Chinese-American man and WASP woman. Having said that, it is no great critical surprise that her two adult Chinese women, Lanlan and Mama Wong, are the two most vivid characters in the book. Perhaps this is precisely because Gish Jen's own life has been closer to those of Carnegie and Blondie: the Chinese women engage her imagination more.
There are a lot of different paths the novelist could have taken starting from this set-up. I won't give the actual story away, if this sounds like your kind of material you should check Gish Jen out for yourself. Of course everyone can see the sense of the title. I was impressed by the way she handled Carnegie's inevitable feelings of lust for this romanticized Chinese woman suddenly living with his family. The danger is vivid. Also satisfying was the way Lanlan is at first indeed a romantic figure, with her patent lack of materialism, strong survival instincts and mixed feelings about China and America, and then gradually revealed to be a more ordinary (and thus more sympathetic) mortal. Also well done was the portrayal of Carnegie, at first he appears high-functioning and sympathetic (and he is both of those things) but one comes to understand the way he maintains distance through his dry wit, a skill developed growing up with the semi-abusive Mama Wong, and what a difficult husband this makes him.
I should mention that an additional point of interest here is a sustained discussion of adoption, as the two teenage girls deal with issues about belonging, self-understanding and other problems of adoptees, intertwining with their Asian-American experience. This aspect is also nicely woven into the plot. As to that, there is something of a genre market for family sagas, and as such they can be melodramatic, a kind of tony soap opera. Reading Louis Erdich's The Master Butcher's Singing Club I was at first interested in how rough of a god she was in the way she treated her characters, but after five or six tragedies too many I felt it was merely a novella (in the Spanish sense). E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, on the other hand, can stand as a paradigm case of how to treat these things with a subtler hand. Here Gish Jen takes maybe a step too far during the run-up to the climactic revelations at the book's end, but I forgave her on the basis of what came after.
Gish Jen herself is the fruit of two literary movements that are characteristic of the English-language novel of the late 20th/early 21st centuries. She is a second generation "culture mash" novelist (my coinage and you're probably observing the entire life of the phrase right here), and she is also coming out of the emergence of a strong tradition of women writers over the past fifty years who have developed the novel as a form for exploring human relationships, family histories, and the interplay of the personal and the political. Thus we enter an age when young women readers have a long shelf of good novels that are written in voices they can understand, about issues that are their own. Good thing.