Book Review: The Wangs vs. the World

Chang's alternately humorous and poignant novel explores what it means to be American when the notion of America wears away

<i>The Wangs vs. the World</i>

What happens when the American Dream, manufactured as it is, goes up in smoke, taking your fortunes with it? Such is the question posed by Jade Chang in her debut novel, which follows the fate of an immigrant businessman and his first-generation children after the collapse of his cosmetics empire.

Charles Wang was incredulous when he arrived in America from Taiwan and learned that he could transform his family's urea business into a wildly successful beauty conglomerate. He is equally as furious when, at the outset of the novel, the promise of the Amer­i­can Dream – although America certainly didn't invent it, he contends – evaporates in the financial collapse of 2008. His only recourse, he believes, is to gather up his family and reclaim his ancestral land in China. This spurs a cross-country trip in a decades-old Mercedes station wagon, a journey that serves to mend the fractures among the family, alternately humorous (characterizations of the novel as "hilarious" are a bit of a stretch, but mileage may vary across audiences) and poignant.

Where Chang, a former arts & culture journalist, shines is in her crisp characterizations, particularly of the Wang children. Grace, the motherless and disaffected youngest child, fantasizes about suicide while uploading hundreds of selfies to her fashion blog. Andrew, the middle child, dreams of being a stand-up comedian, but blanches at the prospect of having to work (gasp!), perhaps even at a job requiring him to wear an apron (the horror!). Oldest daughter Saina must negotiate her identity as a lover, an artist, and a daughter as the burden of her family descends upon her. The snappy dialogue between the siblings crackles and adds dimension to their fully realized relationships as they reframe and redefine their respective inheritances as their trusts go poof.

Meanwhile, Charles, his second wife Barbra, and even the Mercedes get in on the narrative action, delicately embroidering an examination of what it means to be American when the notion of America wears away, like so much stale lipstick.

The Wangs vs. the World

by Jade Chang
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 368 pp., $26

Jade Chang will speak about The Wangs vs. the World in the session “Family Road Trip, Redefined,” with Rufi Thorpe (Dear Fang) and moderator Brittani Sonnenberg on Sun., Nov. 6, 1:45pm, in Capitol Extension Room E2.036.

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