The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang (Satirical Novel, 2016).
A satire on family conflict and the materialistic side of the American Dream, this good first novel is about a Chinese-American family dealing with a sudden fall from economic grace, courtesy the Great Recession, circa 2008. Charles, the Wang family’s middle-aged patriarch, came to California from Taiwan and made a considerable fortune in the cosmetics industry. But he chose the wrong time to begin an ambitious and risky business expansion. Too prideful and stubborn to cut his losses, or even inform his pampered second wife Barbra and his 3 children of the deepening problem, he hung on stubbornly until he found himself utterly bankrupt.
In the face of this disaster, Charles has become fixated on a wild scheme to regain his wealth. He plans to visit the Chinese mainland and recover an allegedly vast family estate the Communists had seized when his parents fled to Taiwan (where he’d been born and raised). But first, he must take a cross-country road trip travel, gathering up the scattered members of his stunned and resentful family.
Barbra was, like Charles, originally from Taiwan–but she’d wholeheartedly embraced American-style consumerism upon her arrival in California and latching onto Charles (a childhood friend, then rich and faced with raising three young children in the aftermath of his first wife’s death in a rather bizarre helicopter accident).
All three of the kids were American-born and have never known anything but a privileged existence.
Grace is a fashion-obsessed 16-year-old, unhappy in boarding school–yet even more unhappy when Daddy and her often distant stepmom come to get her in a somewhat elderly station wagon (the only vehicle that hasn’t been abruptly repossessed).
Andrew, an aspiring stand-up comic and romantic-minded virgin, next finds himself yanked out of college in Arizona.
They head across country, bound for the home of the eldest daughter, Saina. She’s an artist whose last major show triggered so much controversy that her once-brilliant career is very much in doubt. And then there was the stormy breakup with her unfaithful fiance, another artist. Those twin setbacks have caused her to retreat from New York City to a new residence Upstate. She has a secret of her own–a new boyfriend, a local organic farmer (of all things), who also happens to be black. How, Saina wonders darkly, is her stuffy old-world father going to react to THAT?
If all this sounds like a soap opera, I’ll confess it could’ve easily degenerated into that. But Jade Chang’s intent and her handling of the material doesn’t allow for it. The satire here is leavened with an infusion of honest emotional understanding and her characters develop into genuine people–not cliches or stereotypes. The author’s background as a journalist/editor focused on the arts and culture serves her well here. In particular, Chang’s portrait of the internal politics of the fine art world impressed me.
I won’t go into further detail about the many, varied and occasionally absurd misadventures these folks encounter as they slowly figure out what’s really important to them (hint: it ain’t having the newest or most costly stuff). It’s a worthwhile reading experience, joining the Wangs on their physical and emotional journeys.
There’s one last point I would make, however, and it concerns the back-cover blurbs about the book. True, this book definitely has a satirical viewpoint, but I–unlike a couple of the authors praising the novel–can’t in good conscience call it “hilarious.” The satire here, while definitely including some humor, is mostly of a more typically thoughtful variety. Don’t come to this one expecting a laugh-a-minute style (such as in the brutally uproarious Carl Hiassen book I reviewed a couple weeks ago). This one is simply a different sort of novel–and yes, a good one, especially coming from a first-time novelist.