BOOK REVIEW: What We Were Promised

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What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan (Contemporary Novel, 2018).

This touching first novel features vivid characters interacting with the hopes and contradictions of our multicultural world, as well as universal the joys, challenges, contradictions and heartbreaks of modern family life. Wei and Lina Zhen grew up in a small town in the China of the past 40 years. Their marriage was arranged in a secret deal between their parents that aspects of it even they are unaware of. Still, their union has been a good one, they having grown to love each other and now they have a daughter about to enter puberty.

Each is well-educated, including years studying and then working in the US (where daughter Karen was born and still attends a pricey private school). But Wei’s advertising career has led he and Lina back to China–living a life of wealth in the ultra-modern, mostly expatriot section of Shanghai.

With Karen back with them for summer vacation, two people and a couple unrelated events will shake and remake their comfortable (if slightly aimless) lives.

Wei’s long-lost brother Qiang suddenly contacts them after 20 years. Straight-laced Wei finds old resentments toward his rebellious sibling rekindled; meanwhile Lina realizes the secret feelings she had for her brother-in-law are not, as she imagined, a thing of the past.

And then there’s Sunny, a hardworking housekeeper in the exclusive serviced apartment building where the Zhen’s live. Despite being a possible suspect in the disappearance of a piece of jewelry Lina especially treasured, she’s been promoted to serve the Zhen’s exclusively, with particular nanny-like attention to Karen. Sunny is a working-class Chinese country woman–smart, but quiet, as emotionally repressed in her way as Wei and lonely in the big city.

The missing bracelet and who actually stole it is an interesting subplot that leads indirectly to Sunny’s opening up and growing as a person (and finally having some fun in life). But the primary focus of the book is on how the Zhens come to better know, understand and accept one another. Family secrets are gradually revealed and dealt with, like Sunny, Wei and Lina find themselves forced out of their emotionally numbing comfort zones and/or ruts. The decision they make to have Karen live with them year-round promises a better family life for her, as well.

The book builds to a promise of better things for all involved–even the wayward Qiang, one suspects. And it does so without being either overly melodramatic or saccharine in outlook. It’s a fascinating look at a wealth-obsessed modern China that we know entirely too little about, with knowing (but not heavy-handed) social commentary and a deeply human story.

A thoroughly enjoyable first-novel, overall.

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