Hardcover, 368 pages
Published: April 1, 2010 by Penguin Press
Setting: US & China
When Irene’s three daughters had grown up, her husband Bill walked out, “needing a break.” Irene spewed words of bitterness and hurt which she came to regret when Bill died in a tragic accident. These words drove a wedge between Irene and her daughters. Now, at 55, she finds herself alone, desperate to reconnect with her children.
Daughter of a Taiwanese feminist and revolutionary, who immigrated to America after fleeing civil war, Irene was raised to be an exceptional woman at all costs. Irene became a biologist, immersed in important research that might solve the riddle of Alzheimer’s Disease. Yet she was torn between her career and motherhood.
Her mother, Lin Yulan, lives across the country. They are separated by a rift caused by Lin Yulan’s expectations of her daughter. Twenty years ago, at age 60, Lin Yulan left her chronically unfaithful husband, and she harbors deep secrets about what she suffered in China.
The legacy of needing to be an exceptional woman, beyond all else, filtered down to Irene’s daughters, all high achievers. Nora, now in her late 20s, is a successful financial trader. She overcame a professional subculture of sexism and racism to be respected by her male colleagues. She’s in a difficult relationship with her live-in boyfriend, terrified to compromise or commit to him.
Kay, in her mid 20s, is living in deplorable conditions in a Chinese dormitory, determined to learn her ancestral language and reclaim her Chinese identity. She drifts among three different men, never settling into a real relationship, and tries to rescue Chinese prostitutes from sexual exploitation.
Sophie just graduated from high school. A brilliant student and artist, she has won acceptance to Stanford. She struggles with her relationship with her mother, her attachment to her African American boyfriend, who seems to sincerely love her, and an eating disorder.
On New Year’s Eve, Irene reaches out to her sister, Susan. A professor and poet who “sees life in moments” — focusing on “life crystallized” and ignoring cause and effect — Susan is wholly different from her sister. Irene plans a trip for herself and her daughters, Susan, and Yu Lin. Ironically, they find themselves in their ancestral country on a packaged tour, buying overpriced souvenirs and not understanding the language. There is a great deal of awkwardness, misunderstanding, and frustration among the six women. But in the end, they’ve achieved something — not reconciliation, but a bit more acceptance.
Deanna Fei’s narrative shifts among six points of view, speaking in the voice of each of these women. Her characters are well drawn, and she does a magnificent job of seeing the world through the eyes of women in three different generations. I was absorbed by the aspirations, fear of intimate commitments, and confusion navigated by gifted, ambitious women in their twenties. I was also captivated by the hopes and losses of midlife and the challenges of old age, when one has a rich history but few people alive who were there with you to bear witness.
This story has many layers. It reflects both the prejudices toward and high expectations of Chinese Americans. In her review, Amy Finnerty of the New York Times, wrote: “It is to Deanna Fei’s credit that she so squarely and honestly takes on a misunderstood ill — the burden of the so-called model minority.”
The novel also explores Chinese history, including the legacies of the revolution and the tragic holocaust under Japanese occupation. It explores the complexity of women’s issues. For example, Kay is inspired by her grandmother’s feminist revolutionary past. She scours personal ads, preparing to rescue Chinese women from exploitation. Then she discovers these sexually “exploited” women don’t want to be rescued and realizes this issue is more complex than she had imagined. For these women, paradoxically, prostituting themselves offers an unprecedented kind of freedom.
Similarly, Deanna Wei captures the complexities of both traditional marriage and modern relationships and of the struggle between a woman’s career and drive to make a mark on the world and her desire to be in a “safe” intimate relationship and raise children. She respects her readers enough not to suggest easy answers. And the characters she portrays — both male and female — are flawed, vulnerable, and vividly real.