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Mona in the Promised Land

Mona in the Promised Land

3.4 5
by Gish Jen

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A New York Times Notable Book

In these pages, acclaimed author Gish Jen portrays the day-to-day of American multiculturalism with poignancy and wit, introducing us to teenaged Mona Chang, who in 1968 moves with her newly prosperous family to Scarshill, New York. Here, the Chinese are seen as "the new Jews." What could be more natural than for Mona to


A New York Times Notable Book

In these pages, acclaimed author Gish Jen portrays the day-to-day of American multiculturalism with poignancy and wit, introducing us to teenaged Mona Chang, who in 1968 moves with her newly prosperous family to Scarshill, New York. Here, the Chinese are seen as "the new Jews." What could be more natural than for Mona to take this literally—even to the point of converting? As Mona attends temple "rap" sessions and falls in love (with a nice Jewish boy who lives in a tepee), Jen introduces us to one of the most charming and sweet-spirited heroines in recent fiction, a girl who can wisecrack with perfect aplomb even when she's organizing the help in her father's pancake house. On every page, Gish Jen sets our received notions spinning with a wit as dry as a latter-day Jane Austen's.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Both hilariously funny and seriously important.” —Amy Tan

“A shining example of a multicultural message delivered with the wit and bite of art. . . . Gish Jen creates a particular world where dim sum is as American as apple pie.” —Los Angeles Times

“Hopeful and smart, a rare combination.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Hilarious and dazzling. . . . This firmly plotted novel has a raucous good time.” —The Boston Globe

“Funny, headlong and completely delightful. . . . A light-hearted novel of radiant charm and human warmth.” —Cynthia Ozick

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.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

Meet the Author

Gish Jen is the author of four novels, a book of stories, and two books of nonfiction, The Girl at the Baggage Claim and Tiger Writing. Her honors include the Lannan Literary Award for fiction and the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. She teaches from time to time in China and otherwise lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Brief Biography

Cambridge, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
August 12, 1955
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
B.A. Harvard University, M.F.A., Iowa Writers¿ Workshop

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Mona in the Promised Land 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
SusanNJ More than 1 year ago
Mona in the Promised Land was recommended by our public library for our book club. Only 2 people out of 9 were able to finish reading it. Boring doesn't describe how tedius it was. No one got the point of the story and some said it was juvenile. Our discussion was not exciting, as it usually is, because we found nothing worth discussing. Why was this book written? Better still, why was it published? Sorry I wasted my money and time. Don't waste yours.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought it was funny, witty, and surprising. She has a conversational-like writing style that is easy and interesting to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mona in the Promised Land is an excellent book. I enjoyed reading this book because the main character Mona dealt with some issues that I also do as a teenage girl. I thought it was really great to see Mona try to be her own person against the influence of those around her.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's sweet and it smells like China in details. For those who want to get into the details of Chinese thought and everyday life, 'Mona in the Promised Land' is simply amazingly accurate. A witty, funny, ejoyable way of getting to know the bunch of adorable Chinese people living where you do. It's almost like a visit in the home of a Chinese family, who in other circumstances could not have been read like a book. I highly reccomend it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a school book that our teacher picked out for an 8th grade class. I really do not like this book and every other girl in my grade would say the same. it's torture reading this book, not recommended at all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A delightful memoir for all those that went to HS in the late '60s. Especially those of us growing up Jewish near Scarsdale. Her tales of what it's like to be first generation Chinese,very different from her friends and growing up in 1968 are VERY accurate (and enjoyable) for those times. I enjoyed it immensely and it brought back loads of memories of my HS years. I highly recommend it!