The Love Wife

( 4 )

Overview

From the massively talented Gish Jen comes a barbed, moving, and stylistically dazzling new novel about the elusive nature of kinship. The Wongs describe themselves as a “half half” family, but the actual fractions are more complicated, given Carnegie’s Chinese heritage, his wife Blondie’s WASP background, and the various ethnic permutations of their adopted and biological children. Into this new American family comes a volatile new member.Her name is Lanlan. She is Carnegie’s Mainland Chinese relative, a tough, ...
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Overview

From the massively talented Gish Jen comes a barbed, moving, and stylistically dazzling new novel about the elusive nature of kinship. The Wongs describe themselves as a “half half” family, but the actual fractions are more complicated, given Carnegie’s Chinese heritage, his wife Blondie’s WASP background, and the various ethnic permutations of their adopted and biological children. Into this new American family comes a volatile new member.Her name is Lanlan. She is Carnegie’s Mainland Chinese relative, a tough, surprisingly lovely survivor of the Cultural Revolution, who comes courtesy of Carnegie’s mother’s will. Is Lanlan a very good nanny, a heartless climber, or a posthumous gift from a formidable mother who never stopped wanting her son to marry a nice Chinese girl? Rich in insight, buoyed by humor, The Love Wife is a hugely satisfying work.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A big story: a story about families and identity and race and the American Dream. . . . Jen’s most ambitious and emotionally ample work yet.” –The New York Times“Vibrant, vital. . . . Wise and compassionate, The Love Wife unflinchingly probes the ties that bind–and separate–people, races and nations.” –People“A feast of gab, of proclamation and rebuttal, some of the quirkiest, funniest, most intelligent fictional talk in years.” –Newsday“A lush, funny, yet deeply moving novel of family and identity, a wondrous swoosh of a story.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer
Carol Memmott
In a story told from multiple points of view, Jen turns stereotypes upside down by giving each character an issue, label or characteristic you might not expect.
— USA Today
Michiko Kakutani
The Love Wife, is also a big story: a story about families and identity and race and the American Dream, a story about how one generation deals with the expectations and the hopes of an earlier generation, a story about how sons and daughters make choices that define themselves against their parents. It is a story that works a minor-key variation on many of the themes that Ms. Jen has sounded in her earlier fiction, yet a story that also represents her most ambitious and emotionally ample work yet.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
A meddlesome Chinese-American mother bequeaths a Chinese nanny to her ambivalent son and his big blonde wife in this darkly comic fairy tale about cultural assimilation, biological destiny and domestic warfare. In her earlier novels (Typical American; etc.) and short stories, Jen established a sort of Asian Richter scale, registering the culture shock of new and not-so-new Chinese immigrants and their complicated, irrepressible families. Here she focuses on the racially mixed Wong family: Carnegie; his older wife, Janie (dubbed "Blondie" by Carnegie's hilariously awful mother); two adopted Asian daughters (the difficult teenager Lizzy and the hypersensitive Wendy); and a "bio" baby son who looks disturbingly non-Asian. When Carnegie's mother dies after a long bout with Alzheimer's, the Wongs are shocked to learn that she has arranged for an extended visit by a female relative from the Mainland, the unmarried, mysterious Lan. A year older than Blondie, whose "dewlap" and resemblance to an "Aeroflot" are beginning to alarm Carnegie, Lan seems quaint, "plainish" and self-effacing; soon her ambiguous status, passive-aggressiveness and blooming beauty threaten to destabilize the already rocky Wong marriage. Not only does she captivate Carnegie, who is dismayed and fascinated by his own rediscovered Chinese identity, she also preys on the Wong girls' insecurity as Blondie's nonbiological daughters. What threatens to turn into a standard evil-nanny plot takes on unexpected depth as Jen captures the not always likable Wong family with her trademark compassion, laser-like attention to detail and quirky wit. Though the shifting first-person narratives sometimes come off as awkwardly stagey (particularly Carnegie's, with comments like "I was entranced by the eternal return of villanelles-that deathless morph"), this novel has a robust, lived-in quality that makes you miss it when it's over. Agent, Maxine Groffsky. 11-city author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The Wong family has enough problems, as second-generation Chinese Carnegie and his WASPy wife, Blondie, are constantly challenged by their two adopted daughters: typically rebellious adolescent Lilly, of indiscernible Asian descent, and shy preteen Wendy, who is decidedly Chinese. Meanwhile, Blondie is unsettled that she looks nothing like her daughters and husband, and so she clings to her recently born, wholly unexpected biological son, Bailey. The story gets even more interesting when Carnegie's mother, who has been relentless in her dislike for Blondie, arranges for a mainland Chinese relative named Lan to live with them. While Wendy and Lilly begin to wish that Lan were their mother instead of Blondie, and Carnegie begins to wonder what he missed out on with Asian women, the reader detests Lan's intrusion-and wonders why Blondie doesn't put up a bigger fight. Poignant, funny, and powerful in the tradition of her previous works (e.g., Who's Irish: Stories), Jen's latest raises many questions about the significance of race relations within family life and provides an illuminating portrait of Chinese Americans. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/04; see Behind the Book, p. 68.]-Dale Raben, Library Journal Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A vivid and likable family struggles with issues of adoption, aging, generational conflict, and clashing attempts at personal growth. The Wongs-composed of German-Scots-Irish-American mother Blondie, Chinese-American father Carnegie, adopted daughters Lizzie and Wendy, and birth son baby Bailey-live in suburban Boston, experiencing varying degrees of self-satisfaction and secret uncertainties. When Carnegie's strong-willed mother dies, she leaves a strange will that requires him to invite a formerly unknown Chinese relative into their home. Lan, a middle-aged woman from the provinces, readily wins the hearts of the daughters-both of Asian ancestry-and places herself quietly and adamantly at odds with Blondie, in spite of the latter's wishes for harmony in the home. Carnegie feels an attraction to Lan that he wants to keep at bay. Each of the characters helps tell the story, sometimes paragraph by paragraph and never on his or her own for more than a page or two, making this read like a wonderful overheard conversation among family members who truly love one another, in spite of individual quirks. Issues of race, racism, and interracial relationships are examined through the prism of such indisputable humanness that there isn't an ounce of didacticism to be found here. Both adopted teens and those who simply wish they'd wake up to discover that their parents aren't those embarrassing lumps in the next room will enjoy this riff on family while finding much to consider-and to smirk knowingly about.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400076512
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/11/2005
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 749,149
  • Product dimensions: 7.99 (w) x 5.06 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Gish Jen
Gish Jen is the author of two previous novels and a book of stories. Her honors include the Lannan Award for Fiction and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gish Jen’s Who’s Irish? and Mona in the Promised Land are available in Vintage paperback.

From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

As a child, Chinese-American author Gish Jen read constantly, though she did not dream of becoming a writer. From pre-med at Harvard to finally finding an academic "home" in an MFA program, the author of The Love Wife, Typical American, Who's Irish?, and Mona in the Promised Land, is known for her tragi-comic sensibility and transcending stereotypes in her characters' search for identity.

Typical American, Jen's first novel, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and launched Jen into the literary limelight. The story follows three Chinese immigrants, Ralph Chang, his wife, Helen, and his sister, Theresa, as they pursue the American Dream and do battle with the pressures of greed, assimilation, and self-interest. Brilliantly funny and sad, the story takes some surprising turns in the quest to become American.

Gish Jen, whose characters undergo profound changes in the quest for identity, is herself no stranger to identity issues. After publishing two short stories with her given name, Lillian Jen, in the early eighties, she began using the name she acquired in high school, Gish Jen, after the silent film star, Lillian Gish.

Born in 1955 in New York, Jen grew up Chinese and Catholic in Queens, Yonkers and in the large Jewish community of Scarsdale. She never dreamed of being a writer. Instead she dutifully pleased her parents by first going to Harvard with plans to become a lawyer or doctor. That changed when a poetry professor suggested she at least work in publishing if she wasn't going to be a full-time writer. She took a job at Doubleday Books, but was not quite satisfied. From here, she enrolled in an M.B.A. at Stanford University, only to drop out and follow the urge to write. Finally, in the M.F.A. program at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she found her academic and creative home.

After Jen graduated from Iowa in 1983, she married David O'Connor and lived in California until 1985, when they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they now live with their two children. During this period, she was so discouraged about a literary career that she took a typing test at Harvard. Although she passed it with flying colors, she was able to triumphantly turn down the clerical job offered because she had been accepted as a fellow at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute. It was here that Jen began writing her first novel, Typical American, which was eventually published in 1991.

Typical American was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and gave Jen literary clout and exposure. The book follows the lives of three foreign students -- Ralph Chang, older sister Teresa, and Ralph's future wife Helen. When the Communists assume control of China in 1948, the three become trapped in the United States and band together, planning to achieve the American dream while keeping their Chinese values intact. However, as they encounter their own foibles and the challenges of America, the ride in this tragi-comic story is by no means smooth.

Rave reviews followed the publication of Typical American. The New York Times Book Review said, "No paraphrase could capture the intelligence of Gish Jen's prose, its epigrammatic sweep and swiftness. The author just keeps coming at you, line after stunning line. Even her incidental description seems new-minted -- purely functional, bone clean yet lustrous."

Although Typical American was successful, Jen resented being labeled as just an AsianAmerican writer. As a reaction, she decided to complicate what that meant with her second novel, Mona in the Promised Land (1996).

The story centers on the middle-class owners of a pancake house, Helen and Ralph Chang, who have moved on up to a house in wealthy, suburban Scarshill, NY. In 1968, with Vietnam and the civil rights movement in full swing, their younger daughter Mona enters high school, joins a youth group at a synagogue, converts to Judaism, fights against other "isms" and becomes known as Mona "Changowitz." Eventually, her mother turns her back on Mona, and Mona learns that her rabbi is right in telling her, "The more Jewish you become, the more Chinese you'll be."

Jen told the journal, Ploughshares, in 2000 that Mona in the Promised Land grew out of a short story, What Means Switch?, that she had written while trying to finish Typical American. She had lost her first pregnancy, and didn't know if she'd be able to finish the novel. After running into an old high-school acquaintance, she was inspired to revisit her teen years in Scarsdale in a short story.

In the eight short stories of Who's Irish? (2000), Jen chronicles Chinese and other Americans as they take on America with sometimes comic and heart-breaking outcomes. The stories originally appeared in such publications as The New Yorker and Ploughshares. Two stories were selected for the anthology Best American Short Stories, and one that was originally published in Ploughshares, "Birthmates," was chosen by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

The title story of Who's Irish? is one of the best. The story's narrator is a Chinese-born grandmother, who clashes with her liberal-minded, Westernized daughter in matters of childrearing. When she tries to discipline her misbehaving granddaughter in her firm Chinese way, the child's mother, who has married an Irish-American, decides her own mother should move out. Ultimately she moves in with her Irish-American son-in-law's mother, who is just as confused as she is about their offspring's modern ways. It seems the generational clash has superceded ethnic differences.

Throughout her writing career, Jen, has chosen to take advantage of what freedom she could find rather than play such roles as expert on China, or of professional victim. In the Ploughshares interview, she said, "I have hoped to define myself as an American writer."

In her third novel, The Love Wife (2004), readers are introduced to another of Jen's "typical American families." The family is made up of a second-generation Chinese American husband named Carnegie, a blue-eyed wife named Blondie, adopted Asian daughters Wendy and Lizzie and a blond biological son, Bailey. Then from mainland China, along comes Lan, a nanny and relative who is "bequeathed" by Carnegie's mother.

The mother of two biracial children, Jen told Dale Raben in a 2004 interview for the Library Journal that their appearances helped shape one of her themes in The Love Wife.

"My children look exactly alike except that my son has straight black hair and my daughter has fine, light hair. And for whatever reason, that has caused them to be seen very, very differently by the world.

In the novel, Blondie is already worried that their family looks strange, as if she and Bailey don't belong. Lan's arrival only intensifies this pre-existing tension.

Writing from a Chinese American standpoint, Jen argues that grouping people by ethnicity is almost meaningless. Continuing her interview in the Library Journal, she said, "You have to ask, ‘Are they immigrants or are they non-immigrants?' For the people in this book, to be first- and second-generation immigrants from a non-Western culture is very germane. How germane it will be to their children, who can say?"

In her novels and short stories, Jen liberates her characters from stereotypes by making them profoundly human and complex. In an interview published in 1993 in the journal MELUS (The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature) Jen said she views her work as indeterminate in its final message: "I think it has to do with the fact that I come from a culture where things can have opposite attributes at the same time, like in food, sweet and sour. The world is at once yin and yang."

Good To Know

Some outtakes from our interview with Jen:

"I am a more or less normal person."

"I have two happy, healthy children. They are far funnier than I am."

"I love nothing more than a long swim in a pond."

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    1. Hometown:
      Cambridge, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 12, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A. Harvard University, M.F.A., Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Read an Excerpt

BLONDIE / The day Lan came, you could still say whose family this was--Carnegie's and mine.

We had three children. Two beautiful Asian girls--or should I say Asian American--Wendy, age nine, and Lizzy, age fifteen, both adopted; and one bio boy, Bailey, age thirteen months. Carnegie's ancestry being Chinese, and mine European, Bailey was half half, as they say--or is there another term by now? With less mismatch in it--'half half' having always spoken to me more of socks than of our surprise child, come to warm the lap of our middle years.

Our family was, in any case, an improvisation. The new American family, our neighbor Mitchell once proclaimed, tottering drunk up our deck stairs. But for Carnegie and me, it was simply something we made. Something we chose.

His mother, Mama Wong, thought this unnatural.

The trouble with you people is not enough periods, she liked to say. You can say I think like Chinese, but I tell you. A child should grow up, say this is my mother, period. This is my father, period. Otherwise that family look like not real.

Always good about assigning blame, she blamed the family on me.

I know Blondie. Everything a nut do, she do too. She is not even a real nut, like her friend Gabriela. She is only try-to-be-nut.

To which my friend Gabriela would say: Janie. Your name is Janie, I can't believe you let Mama Wong call you Blondie all these years. And Carnegie too! That is like the definition of low self-esteem.

I tried to tell her that it was my choice--that I liked nicknames. I tried to tell her that she could think of Blondie as my married name, as if I'd changed my first name instead of my last. For that was the way I was--or thought I was, before Lan came. An open person. A flexible person. Had I not been voted Most Sympathetic to Others in high school?

CARNEGIE / Our very own Blondie had, in her day, held the Kleenex for the homecoming queen.

But, whatever. Gabriela minded the Blondie bit far more than she minded being called, herself, a nut. She being the first to admit that she had gone back to the earth two or three times, maybe more. Also that she had spent years finding herself without much progress.

BLONDIE / At least you have your family, Gabriela used to say, thumbing through the personals. She circled possibles in pink; her red hair looped out the back of her baseball cap.

At least I had my family.

I was forty-five when Gabriela last said that; Carnegie was thirty-nine. It was 1999. We lived in a nice town with good schools, outside of Boston--a town within easy driving distance, as we liked to say, of both city and ocean.

At least I had my family.

Every happy family has its innocence. I suppose, looking back, this was ours.

Back then, our bird feeder was the most popular in town. In the snow we could have a hundred birds or more. But squirrels came too sometimes, more and more squirrels as the years went on. I fixed a tin pie plate to the top of the pole from which the feeder hung; I greased the pole itself. Yet still the hungry birds huddled in the bushes, some days--too many days--twittering. Clumps of snow pitched themselves from the branches as the birds refined their positions. In contrast, the squirrels leapt at the feeder from the trees, often from two or three directions at once. They gyrated midair--hurtling, twisting, flailing--only to plummet, midflight, to the ground. It was only every so often that one would make it to the seed, tail twitching; but then how the feeder would shudder and swing! Seed flying in black sheets onto the white snow.

--Squirrels will triumph, said Carnegie, observing this. It's only natural.

But the seeds, surprisingly, sprouted in the spring--and wasn't that natural too? I had assumed the seeds sterile. They ought to have been sterile. One day I noticed in the grass, though, a rosetta of sunflower seedlings--each topped with a little leaf bow tie--which were almost immediately no longer seedlings; which were daily, miraculously, larger and larger--until there they loomed, modestly huge-headed, fantastic with a rightness I wanted to call beauty.

It was these that I saw, when I sat up in bed, the early fall day that Lan came to us. Our house was an old house, with enormously wide floorboards and, between them, correspondingly wide cracks. I toed one of these, and felt, for all our housekeeping, graininess. The children thumped hollering down the stairs; Carnegie called for reinforcements, meaning me. Still, for a half second more I enjoyed my flowers. In one way, they were all wrong--a sudden haphazard clump in the middle of the yard. And yet how I drank them in, through the window screen, and the sunlit fog--that awkward glory. So crowded; disorderly; addled. They looked as if they'd dropped their contact lenses, every one of them, and all at the same time. These were the homely, brown-faced kind of sunflowers--some twelve feet tall, single-stalked, scraggly-leaved. Their huge heads knocked into one another. How strange they were--that bird feeder still nestled among their knees, like something they might trip on. And yet how authentic, somehow. How blissfully undeterred; full of the triumph of having become, from the seed of themselves, themselves.

Would this Lan--her name was Lan, meaning 'orchid'--like them?

Back when I was a sophomore in college, I spent a summer in Hong Kong, studying Mandarin. A summer was not a long time. Still, I did learn, a little, about how the Chinese in general prized the cultured. The cultivated.

These sunflowers, meanwhile, were anything but.

Of course, Mainlanders were different than Hong Kongers. The younger generations were different than the older. The less educated were different than the more. Daoists were different. Lan herself could be different.

In this family, we do not generalize, my mother would say. In this family, we keep an open mind.

Still, in my heart of hearts, I wished that this Lan would never come to behold them at all. I wished not to have to explain their beauty.

Now I believed, please understand, in openness. In the importance of cultural exchange, especially what with globalization and whatnot. My family had always hosted exchange students. And whatever the circumstances under which this Lan came, she was, after all, a relative of Carnegie's. Family.

Yet if I could add a word to our language, it would be a word for the peace a grown woman feels on the days--the rare days--when she needs to consider no view but her own.

WENDY / Dad has the windshield wipers on but like no one can see on account of the fog. How can the plane even land, says Lizzy, but Dad says there are special instruments, no one has to be able to see anything.

--It's like jumping, he says, can't we land on the floor with our eyes closed?

--A plane doesn't have feet like ours, says Lizzy. That's reassuring but not true.

--Oh really, says Dad. And where did you learn that?

--Some things you know yourself if you're smart enough to realize it, she says.

--What's reassuring? I say.

--Oh, use your brain, says Lizzy.

--Ah-ah-ah-choo! says Bailey.

Baby Bailey is so little he still has this mirror in front of him in the car. Now he sneezes at the baby in the mirror again--ah-ah-ah-chooo!--and laughs and laughs, loving himself so much that he drools. Dad says he's like Narcissus making his own pool, but then doesn't tell us what that means. In the fullness of time you will get my jokes, he says. In the fullness of time.

--Maybe it will lift, Mom says, let's hope for the best.

--Maybe it will lift, says Lizzy, imitating her. Let's hope...

--Elizabeth Bailey Wong, says Dad. Stop now.

He twists his head clear around like an owl, practically, so we can see how his neck skin always wrinkles in a kind of spiral when he does that. Dad's parents were Chinese Chinese, like from China, so he has the same kind of skin as me and Lizzy, soft smooth like a hill of snow nobody's walked on, only kind of tea-colored in the summer, and creased like in a couple of places, it makes you realize that every time he turns around he does the exact same thing. Over and over. But he keeps on doing it anyway, just like Lizzy keeps on being Lizzy, if she didn't we'd probably all float up to the ceiling with happiness and bang our heads.

--Maybe it will lift, says Lizzy one more time, in her imitation-Mom voice, and then says, in her regular voice:--When I grow up will I also spout inanities out of nowhere?

No answer.

--And what if we don't like her? says Lizzy. Can we send her back to China?

--Can we send her back to China, sighs Mom.

Lizzy is wearing a nose ring and earrings, and henna tattoos in the shape of snakes. Thank god the tattoos at least wash off and that short short blond hair will grow out too, Mom says, but of course not in front of Lizzy, because she completely knows what Lizzy will say back. Namely, Why shouldn't I bleach my hair, it's no different than you highlighting yours, and besides why shouldn't I be blond when my mother is blond?

So instead Mom just says things like how she doesn't like that phrase, sending people back to China. Because people say that even to people who speak perfect English and have been here a long time, she says, and how are you going to like it if people say that to you?

--They aren't going to say that to me, says Lizzy.

--We hope, says Mom.

She doesn't twist around like Dad to talk to us, she just looks in the mirror on the back side of the car visor. Mom is like the complete opposite of Dad. Dad is muscle-y. If you threw him in the ocean he would sink plunk to the bottom, while Mom would bob right up, Dad calls her za-za vavoomy. And she's like colorful. We can see her in the mirror, those blue blue eyes and that blond blond hair and those pink pink lips. It's the complete farm girl look, Lizzy says, that being where her family is from originally, on her mom's side anyway, a farm in Wisconsin where people were real and not phony. Of course, she herself grew up in Connecticut. Still who would've thought she'd end up in a place where people actually buy those black designer diaper bags? That's what she wants to know sometimes, I guess she always figured she'd kind of drift back to the farm someday.

But like here she is.

--We hope, says Mom. But even if they don't, in our family we don't talk about sending people back to China. Because some of the people who get told that aren't from China to begin with.

--Some of them are from New Jersey, says Dad.

--Some of them aren't even of Chinese origin, says Mom.

--You mean some of them are who-knows-what, says Lizzy. Right? Japanese, or Vietnamese.

--Right.

--Or mixed-up soup du jour, like me. Right?

--Right.

--You're too sensitive, says Lizzy.

Mom flips the visor back up, making that little light next to the mirror blink out. Which was the maybe brightest thing I've seen all day, I realize, that's how gray it is out.

--And how is it that the honky in the family gets to explain this? Mom asks the air.

Dad puts the windshield wipers on high even though it isn't really raining.

--You are a superior being married to a quasi-Neanderthal who has yet to internalize the mores of the middle class, that's how, he says, turning to her. And when she doesn't turn back, he puts his eyebrows up and down, he has these big thick eyebrows like caterpillars. Then he says, quiet like:--I do beg your patience.

His cell phone rings, this week the tune is 'America the Beautiful,' which he says is for the benefit of Lizzy and me, he wants to make sure we know more than 'Afunga Alafia.' Not that he has anything against Swahili, Swahili is very nice, he says, a language spoken by many.

--Sounds great, he says now, into the phone, in his work voice. Just make sure the visuals are in order and that new one...exactly.

Bailey starts crying, so Lizzy plugs him up with a passy.

--Anyway, she's from a little town someplace between Shanghai and Beijing, Mom says. Which are cities in China.

--You told us that already, says Lizzy.

But Mom keeps going over the whole thing anyway like it's what to do in case of a fire or something.

--She's very nice and she's our relative, says Mom. She'll be here for a couple of years, helping with you guys, and we are all going to like her.

--That's reassuring but not necessarily true, says Lizzy.

--No one can say anything around here, says Dad.

--That's not true either, says Lizzy.

--So what is true? I say. If you're so smart.

LIZZY / --Parents are liars, I said. When they're worried they reassure you and they steal your Halloween candy if you're not careful.

--Nobody stole your Halloween candy, said Dad. If you're talking about last year.

--I was careful, I said.

WENDY / --Some was missing from mine, I say.

I look at the black back of Dad's head. Then at the blond back of Mom's.

--I don't even like Reese's peanut butter cups, says Dad.

--Oh, for heaven's sake, Carnegie, says Mom.

--Nor do I care for Kit Kats, he says.

--Honestly! says Mom. You are my fourth child.

--So sue me, sue me, what can you do me, sings Dad. I...a-a-ate...them.

His cell phone rings again. We can hear the words in our heads. Ohh beau-ti-ful for spacious...

--Will you put that thing on vibrate, says Mom. And when Dad doesn't answer:--Honey, please. Taking phone calls night and day is just not going to help. If there are going to be layoffs, there are going to be layoffs.

--Thank you for that consoling insight, says Dad. It will bring me almost as much solace on a sleepless night as knowing the Great Greenspan saw this coming.

His phone rings again. Ohh beau-ti-ful for...

--And may I just point out that I turned mine off even though I have that board meeting tomorrow, says Mom.

--Nobler than springtime, are you, sings Dad then. Sweeter than Kit Kats, are you...

But he shuts his phone off and hands it to Mom. She puts it in the glove compartment, closing it up with kind of a bang because it doesn't work that great. Of course it falls back open again anyway, so she hits it again, only more gently, which works. There's that click. Then she looks over her shoulder and says:--Your dad is a joker.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. At the beginning of the novel, Blondie says, “At least I had my family. Every happy family has its innocence. I suppose, looking back, this was ours” [p. 4]. Is her belief in the sanctity of the family shared by the others? In what ways does her upbringing and her position within the Bailey family as “the throwback, a plain Jane who seemed to have no part in certain family games” [p. 70] influence her point of view?

2. How does Mama Wong’s Alzheimer’s affect Carnegie’s feelings about her? In what ways do his reactions offer insights not only into her character but into Carnegie’s as well? Compare his feelings and the way he expresses them with Blondie’s blunter observations about her mother-in-law. Are the differences based purely on their relationship to Mama Wong and her treatment of each of them? How does Jen capture the poignancy, the frustration, and even the humor of dealing with an Alzheimer’s patient?

3. Several decades separate the arrivals of Mama Wong and Lan in America. What insights do their backgrounds provide into the position of women in Chinese society both before and after the Communist takeover? Using Carnegie’s retelling of Mama Wong’s story [p. 30] and Lan’s thoughts as she settles into the household [pp. 39—49] and her description of her life in China [p. 95—102] as a starting point, discuss the ways in which their expectations and their experiences as immigrants differ and what they have in common. What do their comments about life in America bring to light about the changes in this country during that same period?

4. When Mama Wong dies, Carnegie says, “What a large word, ‘mother’; how puny its incorporation. Like the words ‘her family,’ meaning me. It was at times like this that I missed having a father, but not only for myself. I missed my mother having a husband.” [pp. 177—78]. How does this reflection encapsulate Carnegie’s state of mind and his emotional awakening? What impact do his memories of childhood, his mother’s memorabilia, and the discovery of the existence of the family book [pp. 189—193] have on his relationship with Blondie? How does Jen make these changes apparent?

5. Lizzy is in many ways a typical teenager trying to establish her own identity. To what extent does her image of herself as “mixed-up soup du jour” [p. 8] help to explain her almost immediate attachment to Lan? Does Lan take advantage of Lizzy’s confusion in an unfair or calculated way?

6. What does Wendy’s perspective add to our understanding of the family dynamics? What particular passages or incidents show that she, as Lan tells her, “See not only with your eyes but with your heart” [p. 90]? What effect does the fact that she is from China and her origins are clear have on the way she is treated by others and on her sense of identity?

7. Blondie asks herself, “Were we adopting this child [Wendy] for her good or for ours?” [p. 121] What does this imply about parenthood? Is it as relevant to the decision to have a child of one’s own as it is to adopting a child?

8. What is the significance of Blondie’s assertion, “I had always drawn strength from the fact that my hair next to Lizzy’s should be a picture that challenged the heart. Now I drew on it purposefully, the way other women drew on the knowledge that they were intelligent or thin. I had had the heart to take these children in, after all. Had I not loved them deeply and well, as if they were from the beginning my own?” [p. 133] Does her description of Bailey’s birth [p. 156] cast a different light on her feelings?

9. Is Blondie’s uneasiness about Lan’s claims on the children’s affections unusual? What distinguishes Lan’s role in the household from the usual interactions between a family and the people who care for their children? How do Lan’s personality and her judgments [p. 136, for example], as well as Carnegie’s and Blondie’s attitudes, contribute to the ambiguous nature of the relationship?

10. Does Lan’s presence in the household alter Blondie and Carnegie’s marriage in a fundamental way, or does it simply throw into relief differences that existed all along? To what extent is Carnegie’s attraction to Lan [pp. 142—44] attributable to misgivings about his marriage? Is the unraveling of the Wongs’ marriage inevitable, or does it confirm Blondie’s suspicion that Mama Wong “would send us, from her grave, the wife [Carnegie] should have married” [p. 195]?

11. What personal ambitions does Lan bring to the United States? Is her drive and desire to make the most of herself admirable or opportunistic and self-serving? How complicit is she in alienating Blondie from the family? What messages does she convey in the lessons she gives the girls in Chinese language and culture [pp. 203, 215—16, for example]? What do her involvement with Shang [pp. 285—309] and her marriage to Jeb Su reveal about Lan’s priorities?

12. Throughout the novel, Blondie and Gabriela exchange e-mails [pp. 131, 141, 202, 218—19]. What insight do these provide that is missing from Blondie’s longer, more detailed accounts of events? What does this friendship provide Blondie that is lacking in her relationship with Carnegie and with her siblings and father?

13. Why does Blondie’s effort to reclaim her family by becoming a stay-at-home mom ultimately fail? Beyond the practical implications, what is the importance of her decision to move out of the house?

14. The book ends on an ambivalent note. Why are the final words Wendy’s, and how do they relate to the themes of the novel?

15. Each character presents a personal chronicle of the events in their lives, sometimes commenting on or correcting the perceptions of the others. How would you describe the tone of each character’s commentary? For example, what qualities do Carnegie’s portrait of Blondie [pp. 20—21] and his “selected preconceptions, wholly inexcusable” about Lan [p. 12] have in common?

16. How do the juxtaposition of viewpoints and the mixture of tones affect the way the story unfolds and your reactions to the individual characters? Which one, if any, dominates the narrative? Does a particular character stand out as the emotional center of the novel? How might a reader’s own experience, gender, or background influence their sympathies for the various characters?

17. Gish Jen’s previous books–Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, and Who’s Irish?–established her as a funny and incisive portrayer of the way people of various backgrounds, cultures, and ambitions search for a place for themselves in America. How does The Love Wife extend and add twists to the notion of America as a nation of immigrants? Has the need to assimilate become less important to recent immigrants than it was to past generations or has assimilation become redefined?

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 13, 2010

    Enjoyed

    Enjoyed

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2006

    lovin' it

    Break my heart, why don't you? Reading good writing, *really* good writing such as this novel, makes me wonder how I can make myself useful as a writer? The pain in this book, I felt it - it truly hurt to read sometimes the clarity is amazing. It showed me what biatches women can be and that white women are relatively weaker than Asian women.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    As good as it gets

    His mother hated that second generation Chinese-American Carnegie married ¿Blondie¿ instead of a Chinese. In spite of his mother¿s objections, Carnegie and Janie (¿Blondie¿) seem to get on fine and eventually adopt two Asian children (fifteen years old Lizzy and nine years old Wendy). Fifteen months ago Blondie gave birth to their first natural born child a son Bailey........................ Before dying from Alzheimer¿s, mom arranged for the single Lan, a female relative from Mainland China, to join her son¿s family. The mysterious Lan seems to have captured Carnegie¿s attention and shares much with the girls. Janie feels more and more like an outside Blondie with her own family. She turns to her infant son for solace as the other three increasingly turn to Lan....................................... This is an intriguing look at modern race relations within a family that seems like an anecdote for society in general as complexity is a way of life. Carnegie is an intriguing protagonist as he rediscovers his roots, but fears that will make him seem ancient in America. Of interest is how clever Lan is in using the insecurities of the adopted children, the fears of Janie increasingly wondering if she is the outsider, and the fascination of Carnegie to manipulate her hosts. Though rotation of the perspectives enables the audience to better understand the individual, that device also makes it difficult to follow the plot as no center holds the tale together. Still this is a poignant look that intelligently argues that racial issues are changing yet remain local..................................... Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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