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The Love Wife by Gish Jen

January 22nd, 2005 · No Comments

Why did I read The Love Wife? I read a review in the Seattle Times. And I like to try to keep up with fiction writers as I can. I’ve read a few Gish Jen stories but never one of her novels. Yet this one surprised me with its richness, surpassing my expectations.

Why should you read The Love Wife? If you’ve ever danced on the edges of cultural intersections, especially the convergence of Chinese and American identities, this book will give you giggles and tears. Or if you’ve ever adopted a child, cared for a parent or parented a baby, wondered about work or what it means to be an American. When I started the novel, I thought the characters were caricatures, and the style, written as if it were a play, seemed over the top to me. How could I take it seriously?

The novel created the family of Carnegie and Blondie Wong. Carnegie’s mom immigrated from China, escaping the country by swimming with two basketballs. Mama Wong nicknamed her son’s wife Blondie. Janie indeed has blond hair and blue eyes and she can speak Mandarin due to college studies. Carnegie and Blondie adopted two children. One child, Lizzy, was an Asian girl who was abandoned in the community (and brought them together as a couple). They traveled to China to adopt Wendy. Years later they are surprised when Blondie becomes pregnant, adding to the family a boy, Bailey, who arrived with blond hair and blue eyes. After Mama Wong’s death, the execution of her will meant that a distant relative Lanlan came to join the family from China (the suspected “love wife” of the title). Is there in America such a family as this one?

Jen’s novel wanders the territory of adoption and “natural” children, families that blend identities, work/life balance dilemmas, and the contrast between American and Chinese values, lifestyles, proverbs and behaviors. Soon I saw that Jen had chosen this family and writing style as intentional tools. She used these aspects that border on the ridiculous to address serious topics. A book that tried to tackle these subjects would be a bore. But Jen’s story creatively exposed perspectives in a way that made me laugh and cry and cling to the book until I had finished the last pages. She spoke truths I had experienced, truths that resonated with my emotions, truths that had lived as secrets inside me, unspoken.

The end of the book I felt took a few strange twists and turns. It reminded me somehow of what I don’t like about modern fiction. I can’t put my finger on it or put it into words. Perhaps it is that I appreciate the introspective descriptive moments rather than the fast fowarding of time. Also the end of the book becomes even stranger in a fantastical sense. Sad too. And there is a twist that might have been predictable, had I been seeking it, but the surprise also caused me to think through the book and put the pieces together long after I had read it.

I don’t often have time to read a novel, but this one was worth the hours I spent with it.

Here are a couple quotes.

Blondie/ But Lizzy in a fit one day had bequeathed her Chinese everything to Wendy. So there it was all in her room.

Carnegie/ A veritable chinatown tchotchke shop.

I loved the alliteration of that last line…

Lanlan smiles her smile.

– You are a real Chinese girl, she says. See not only with your eyes but with your heart. p 90

The novel had many cultural definitions such as this quote.

USA Today published an excerpt

Tags: books

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