Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang: A review


The Wangs vs. the World is Jade Chang's debut novel. I think she has a future in fiction-writing.

Chang tells us the story of a family whose financial security was ruined by the crash of 2008. They were a wealthy California family living the good life, never questioning the privileges which they enjoyed. Through a series of very bad decisions made by the patriarch of the family, Charles Wang, the family lost everything. Their palatial home, their cars, their bank accounts, the son's college career - all gone in the virtual blink of an eye.

It could be the story of any one of many families who suffered through that precarious period of the world's financial systems and came out the other side much poorer and perhaps wiser than they went in. But this is a very particular story of a particular family.

It is a family headed by immigrants. Charles and Barbra Wang are originally from Taiwan, where their own families of origin had been pushed by the Japanese or the Chinese Communists. Charles' parents had followed Chiang Kai-shek and he was born there. He had never set foot into China.

As a young man, Charles left his parents and migrated to America. He fell in love with a country which welcomed entrepreneurs and made it possible for them to make their fortunes. He proved adept in doing just that, but he never saw his parents alive again.

Not only did Charles make his fortune, he also married a beautiful woman, May Lee (Mei Li), a model. They had three children, two girls and a boy. Charles seemed to be living a charmed life. But just when everything seemed perfect, tragedy struck.

When the youngest child, Grace, was only two months old, her mother was killed in a helicopter crash at the Grand Canyon.

Back in Taiwan, Barbra, who had longed to marry Charles, heard about May Lee's death and immediately made plans to emigrate. Her plans came to fruition; she made it to California and married Charles.

At the time that we meet the Wangs, it is sixteen years later. The older daughter, Saina, has moved on to New York and had a successful few years as an artist but recently has suffered a setback when one of her shows was widely panned. The middle child, Andrew, who wants to be a stand-up comedian, is attending Arizona State. Grace, the youngest, is in high school and is the purveyor of a popular blog about fashion.

Once it is clear that the family is bankrupt, Charles' first thought is to get all his family back together again and so he piles his wife and younger daughter and all their remaining belongings into an old car he had previously given to their servant (she loans it to them for the trip) and they head out on a road trip to pick up Andrew in Phoenix and then go on to Helios, New York, to the farmhouse where Saina is now living. His second thought is to get back to China and claim his family's ancestral lands, lands that he has never seen.

We travel with the Wangs on that chaotic road trip as they learn about the country and about themselves. Somewhere crossing Texas, Charles meditates on this country which he once loved, the country which he feels has betrayed him.
America was a great deceptor. Land of Opportunity. Golden Mountain. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. But inside those pretty words, between the pretty coasts, was this: Miles and miles of narrow-minded know-nothings who wanted no more out of life than an excuse to cock their AK-47s and take arms against a sea of troubles. A Great Wall? Ha! This country could never build itself anything as epic as that. America wanted to think of itself as a creator, but all it could do was destroy - fortunes, families, lives. Even the railroads needed the Chinese to come and build them.

I suspect he speaks for many disillusioned immigrants in those thoughts. 

I found The Wangs vs. the World to be a very entertaining, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and in many ways thought-provoking read. It's a book that brings a personal perspective to the catastrophic events of the 2008 financial crash. It is a saga that explores just what it is to be a part of a family and what it is to be a part of a country, a culture. As I said in the beginning, I think Jade Chang has a future as a writer.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
            

4 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. The Wangs were not always likable people. They occasionally did some fairly despicable things, but they were always interesting.

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  2. Now I know more about this book than I did after reading all kinds of blurbs and reviews. Thank you!

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