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BOOK REVIEWS


Author Gish Jen (Photo/J.D. Sloan)

From The Asian Reporter, V14, #46 (November 9, 2004), page 11.

Rich in story

The Love Wife

By Gish Jen

Knopf, 2004

Hardcover, 379 pages, $24.95

By Josephine Bridges

The day Lan came, you could still say whose family this was — Carnegie’s and mine." With these words Blondie, the only non-Asian among the five narrators of The Love Wife, sets Gish Jen’s third novel in motion. In both form and content, The Love Wife is a staggering achievement, not to mention a great read.

Carnegie Wong, Blondie’s husband, provides another of the five points of view expressed here. Describing his mother, who swam across the shark-filled harbor from mainland China to Hong Kong using two basketballs as flotation aids, Carnegie recounts, "The week before our wedding, she bought a Mercedes. She steeled herself for the event by reading over the owner’s manual."

Lizzy, a third narrator, is the elder of Blondie and Carnegie’s two adopted daughters, and the person who brought the couple together. Asian of indeterminate origin — "soup du jour" in Lizzy’s words — and born in America, the teenager struggles mightily with her ethnic and cultural identity. When Blondie states that she, too, is "soup du jour," the following conversation between the two ensues:

— Yeah, but it doesn’t matter as much because you’re white and not adopted. Nobody wonders where you’re from, nobody asks you.

— Well, I wonder myself.

— It’s different, I said. Because if you don’t want to wonder, you don’t have to.

Wendy is the younger of the daughters, born in China and acquired with such difficulty that Lizzy contrasts all traumatic events with "what happened in China" and finds them diminished by comparison. A nine-year-old with remarkable — but believable — sensitivity, articulation, and courage, Wendy is given to deep understatement in her narration. On the way to the airport to pick up the woman who will irrevocably alter her family, Wendy notes, "The windshield wipers keep on wiping and wiping as if that’s their homework and they just have to do it."

Lan, the fifth narrator of The Love Wife, is a Chinese relative who supposedly comes to America — a condition of Carnegie’s mother’s will — to work as a nanny to Lizzy, Wendy, and their "bio" baby brother, Bailey. A survivor of the cultural revolution and Blondie’s senior by a year, who could nonetheless pass as "a slightly older cousin of the girls," Lan’s emotional range extends from "For did not Blondie decide I should live in the barn with the goat instead of in the guest room?" to "Of course the [Mao] badges were beautiful, everyone thought that. Even I thought that until the Red Guards killed my father," to "Sometimes when I looked at Bailey, I could feel how lonely he was. I could feel how small he was too, much too small to sleep by himself."

In addition to the five narrators, there are a bevy of splendid minor characters including Tommy the goat — "Its rectangular pupils," Carnegie points out, "were like mail slots" — and Lan’s suitor Shang, who thinks of everything in terms of investment:

— You know what I thought when I first saw you? he asked me. I shook my head.

— Buy, he said. Buy and hold.

The story of the intersection of all these marvelous lives, The Love Wife is comic and tragic and filled with wisdom. In Carnegie’s reverie about his mother, Mama Wong says it best of all:

"Sometimes I think how many people are bored, and how we are not bored. We are going somewhere; we are going, going. I made up my mind about it already, and I know. We are going up. You can be rich in money, and of course, this is good. But you can be rich in story, and this is good too."

The Love Wife is a treasure trove.

* * *

What is a family? What is a nation?

An interview with writer Gish Jen

By Josephine Bridges

In writing The Love Wife, Gish Jen gave herself some tough assignments in both form and content. Not only does the author explore weighty matters such as the nature of family and nationality, she does so with a constantly shifting point of view. In town for a reading and book signing at Powell’s, Gish Jen described the experience of writing her third novel as "hair-raising."

Gish Jen spoke of her political commitment to writing "a novel that is open. I wanted to, I had to write it, but I wasn’t sure anybody would read it." She needn’t have worried. Her publishers at Knopf were so excited by this "risky" book, that, according to the author, "It was unbelievable how fast they got it out. I was looking at galleys in June." It’s no surprise that Gish Jen isn’t saying what she’s working on now, but whatever it is, she can rest assured that there are lots of folks looking forward to it. "Mainstream readers" were so engaged by The Love Wife that they are conversing with each other about literary form. "This is very unusual," said the modest author. In fact, it’s the sort of thing that writers dream of.

The humor in Gish Jen’s writing is frequently a topic of comment on her work, and the author is a little surprised by this. "My books are more than funny," she says. "They have emotional complexity." It’s the deft combination of the two that makes Gish Jen’s work like nothing else. The opportunity to giggle and gasp in the space of one short paragraph is more than most readers even hope for.

Gish Jen is the author of two previous novels, Typical American and Mona in the Promised Land, and Who’s Irish? a collection of short stories. The first novel asks and explores the question, "What is American?" The second, about a Chinese girl turned Jewish, considers "the invention of ethnicity as we know it." In The Love Wife, Gish Jen ponders, "What is a family? Can it be held together by choice or is it based on blood and shared ethnicity?" and goes on to ask, "What is a nation?"

In writing a novel from the perspective of five different narrators, Gish Jen is making the point that she has no favorite characters; she hopes her readers will also "come to see through several points of view." Asked what surprised her as she wrote the novel, she answered, "Everything." Of the ending, which conveys the uncertainty of life rather than the assured happiness of fairy tales, the author says that, while she wasn’t sure how the book was going to end, "I knew when I’d hit it. It was right, and I was excited."

The author has been in Portland three or four times, and she is impressed in particular with the urban planning and arts organizations in our fair city. "It seems like heaven here." But like her characters in The Love Wife, Gish Jen treasures her family above all. Asked about her writing process, the author says that on school days, "I drop my kids off, get a double cappuccino, and start typing." After school afternoons, evenings, and weekends are "family time." Considering how precious her time with her family is, it is a special privilege to have her visit us, so far away from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and to look forward to her return with whatever she has in store for us next.

 

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