Mona in the Promised Land

Mona in the Promised Land

by Gish Jen

It is 1968, the dawn of the age of ethnicity: African Americans are turning Chinese, Jews are turning black, and though some nice Chinese girls are turning more Chinese, teenaged Mona Chang is turning Jewish, much to her parents' chagrin. The Chang family has just moved to posh Scarshill, New York, where the rhododendrons are as big as the Chang family's old bathroom,…  See more details below


It is 1968, the dawn of the age of ethnicity: African Americans are turning Chinese, Jews are turning black, and though some nice Chinese girls are turning more Chinese, teenaged Mona Chang is turning Jewish, much to her parents' chagrin. The Chang family has just moved to posh Scarshill, New York, where the rhododendrons are as big as the Chang family's old bathroom, and no one trims the forsythia into little can shapes. This takes some getting used to, especially since there's also a new social landscape, with a hot line, a mystery caller, and a Temple Youth Group full of radical ideas. Mona quickly bleaches her bell-bottoms; then it's off with her friends to reform race relations. They find a cause in Alfred, the handsome black number-two cook at Mona's parents' pancake house, and pretty soon there is a mansion hideout with an underground railroad and a utopia called Camp Gugelstein. Certain love affairs run into trouble, though. And by the end, for better or for worse, unforeseen truths of contemporary America have been memorably revealed.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The daughter of Chinese immigrants grows up in an affluent New York suburb in what PW described as a "wickedly and hilariously observant" second novel. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Helen and Ralph Chang of Typical American fame (LJ 2/15/91) have moved up the American dream ladder as owners of a thriving pancake house and, in 1968, when younger daughter Mona enters high school, of a house in wealthy, suburban Scarshill (read Scarsdale), New York. But the times are fraught with change-not just the rebellion of U.S.-born Mona against the warnings and ways of her immigrant parents ("make sure," caution the elders repeatedly), but the rebellion of an entire generation against the ways of its parents. Over the next few years, with best friend Barbara Gugelstein and boyfriend Seth Mandel, Mona embraces Judaism (the religion of many of Scarshill's residents), confronts racism against blacks and others, espouses various causes, argues about socialism and other isms, and experiences sex and drugs. Ultimately, her actions prove too much for her mother, who turns her back on Mona, saying "Is this my daughter?" Jen's hilarious rendering, and rending, of an era is so accurate that it becomes real even for those who weren't there. She evenhandedly skewers all groups, from Jewish to black to WASP to Chinese to Japanese, reminding each of the shared histories that separate them. A brilliantly clever, worthy successor to her first novel.-Francine Fialkoff, "Library Journal"
Charles Taylor
Years ago, in a routine about craft projects, Lily Tomlin said that some of the things people can make nowadays are so clever it's impossible to tell whether or not they have any talent. You could say the same thing about comic observation in modern novels. There's observation up the ying-yang in Gish Jen's second novel, Mona in the Promised Land: witty observations of how the teenage Chinese-American heroine has more in common with her Jewish friends in suburban Westchester than her hard-working parents and telling observations of how Mona's parents give themselves over to the all-American work ethic while they resist becoming more Western. But is there dramatization, narrative momentum, any spark of savvy, pep, sensitivity or -- excuse me -- chutzpah that would tell us why we should care about Mona? We should only be so lucky.

The opening passages, with Mona sprouting all sorts of tall tales about her heritage, had me laughing. "In the eighth grade, people do not want to hear about how Chinese people eat tomatoes with the skin on . . . On the other hand, the fact that somewhere in China somebody eats or has eaten or once ate living monkey brains -- now, that's conversation." Fifty pages later, I had stopped laughing and had no idea why I was still reading.

Jen has the audacity to combine an adolescent's search for self with the larger search for cultural identity, and to set the whole thing in the late '60s when questions of racial and cultural identity seemed new and urgent. But there's nothing here Margaret Cho hasn't done funnier already, and Jen shies away from any turmoil or conflict that would require more than her oblique, low-key fiction-class approach. Reading Mona, you'd never know the '60s were anything more than a fad for bored, spoiled suburban kids. It's not just that the characters are oblivious to the larger questions swirling around in that decade; so's Jen. The book reads like notes for a character who didn't make the final cut on "The Wonder Years." In this novel, the '60s are grist for nothing more than the latest offbeat entry in the "It's all a part of life's rich pageant" genre sweepstakes. --Salon

Kirkus Reviews
"American means being whatever you want," the intensely bright and high-spirited protagonist of Jen's second novel (after Typical American, 1991) declares to her mother early in the narrative, and this droll, moving work presents an unsparing analysis of the allure and tolls of that freedom.

Mona Chang offers a first-person record of her life from 1968, when she is in the eighth grade, to adulthood. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Helen and Ralph, who have worked determinedly to discard the more obvious habits and tastes that might mark them as being too foreign; they have even (grudgingly) accepted that Mona and her sister Callie will inevitably lead lives far removed from most Chinese traditions. Grasping just how far, though, is the problem: Mona, feeling increasingly unmoored when her parents move to wealthy Scarshill, New York, believing that she needs to belong to a minority prouder of its identity and traditions, decides to convert to Judaism. Her decision unnerves not only her parents but the wider community, yet she stubbornly perseveres in the first of several rebellions. Woven through Mona's often witty narrative of her adolescence, of her struggles both to fit in and to stand apart, of her first hesitant experience of passion, is her determination to live outside both the expectations of her parents and the blithe stereotypes of society. Jen, who misses little, renders the status-laden particulars of life in Scarshill with the specificity of an anthropologist, and she catches the enthusiasms and prejudices of the 1960s and '70s with a documentary-like zeal. Mona describes all of this in a voice that is earthy, vivid, and convincing.

In tracing the (guardedly triumphant) struggles of one young woman to be herself, borrowing from a variety of traditions without being constrained by any of them, Jen gives us an affecting story—precise, often very funny—and a wonderfully idiosyncratic heroine.

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Gardners Books
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