Mona in the Promised Landby 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.
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
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 storyprecise, often very funnyand a wonderfully idiosyncratic heroine.
- Gardners Books
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