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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Texas Book Festival
The Texas Book Festival's Read Warriors
The Texas Book Festival's Read Warriors
Book lovers charge the Texas State Capitol this weekend

Robert Faires, Oct. 25, 2019

The Highs and Lows of Houston Life in <i>Lot: Stories</i>
The Highs and Lows of Houston Life in Lot: Stories
Bryan Washington depicts residents with warmth and discernment as they live, fight, work, and love in a city that can be both a home and a challenge

Rosalind Faires, Oct. 25, 2019

More Arts Reviews
<i>Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents</i> by Isabel Wilkerson
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
In her second book, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines and breaks down the unacknowledged social structure baked into our country

Rosalind Faires, Nov. 13, 2020

<i>Sex and Vanity</i> by Kevin Kwan
Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan
Kevin Kwan offers another gloriously satirical and sharp sociological take on the insular lives of the untouchably rich

Barbara Purcell, Nov. 6, 2020

More by Melanie Haupt
Desert Door Distillery Rolls Out Large Hand Sanitizer Production
Desert Door Distillery Rolls Out Large Hand Sanitizer Production
Local sotol makers offer the critical commodity free of cost

March 20, 2020

Tibetan Dumplings Shine at Yak & Yeti in Cedar Park
Tibetan Dumplings Shine at Yak & Yeti in Cedar Park
Dishes for sharing (or not) at this tiny Nepalese restaurant

Feb. 14, 2020


Texas Book Festival, Texas Book Festival 2016, Jade Chang

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle