What defines a family?
Is the definition of family constant? Or does it change as time passes?
Honest. Heartbreaking. Hilarious. Hopeful. Those are the words that, for me, best describe The Wangs vs. The World, the debut novel of journalist Jade Chang.
I have high hopes going into this book. This book is in almost all of the “Most Anticipated Book of 2016” and every “Best Book for Fall 2016” list. If you’re a contemporary fiction fan like me, I know you’ve come across this book somewhere in the last couple of months. It was so hyped that at one point I doubted reading it immediately because I’m afraid I’ll get disappointed because that’s the thing with some hyped up books. So going into the book, I tried to control my excitement. But gladly, it did not disappoint. Halfway through it, I already knew that this book will be on my “Best 16 Books of 2016” list. And yes, this is what a debut novel should be. Rich in substance. Original content and not a cliched premise. Insightful. Not perfect but sincere in it’s entirety.
The book follows the story of Charles Wang who migrated to the United States from Taiwan (but his roots are from China) and built himself a cosmetic company. He married a model and had three children who, whe the story started, are all living in different parts of the United States. There’s Grace, a high school fashion blogger who was sent to a boarding school after eloping with a guy she fell in love with. There’s Andrew, a college student studying in Arizona, who prides himself a lot with his comedic skills and wants to be a full-time comedian. Then there’s Saina, an artist in New York who after a streak of successful art gallery shows finds himself hiding in upstate New York after a public backlash over her last show. Charles’ ascent to the social and economic ladder allowed him to provide every material thing to his family. Something that he was not able to enjoy growing up. His life took a turn when his wife died of a helicopter accident which he himself narrowly escaped. Then he met Barbra who’s also an immigrant from Taiwan and married her.
“Love saves you, as long as there’s a you to be saved.”
― Jade Chang, The Wangs vs. the World
The life of the Wangs totally took a flip when in an unexpected turn of events, Charles found himself bankrupt because of some bad decisions that he made. The books starts with him coming to terms with the loss of everything that he worked for. He’s literally back to zero as his company and properties are being repossessed by the bank because of his unsettled credits. With little fund left and no place to stay, he’s forced to pull Andrew from college and Grace from boarding school. And along with his new wife, Barbra, they find themselves taking a cross country road trip from California to New York where Saina lives. What followed is a road trip like no other, from meeting different kinds of people during their stopovers to simple but touching moments in their station wagon. And all along, Charles has a plan once they are settled: He’ll come back to China and reclaim his ancestor land that was taken from them by Communists and start over. But will it be that easy?
The strongest point of the book, I believe, is it’s characterization. I love how the book took it’s time in letting the readers know the background of the characters. I like how that did not only become limited to the main characters but was also extended to some side characters that played pivotal roles in the development of the main characters. I like books that really explore characters and does not limit the introduction of characters to just the basic description of who they are or what they look like. I can’t remember reading a book with the author giving a very in-depth exploration on the backstory of his/her characters. By doing that, the characters became more fleshed out and engaging. The contrast between their personalities makes this book an even more exciting read.
Their journey did not only became a journey towards New York but also became a journey towards self-discovery. The road trip became a window for the readers to know the characters more, from their history to their life and dreams. The point of view moves between each of the characters (+ the car, yes the car!). It allowed me to see how they contemplate on things like the sudden shift in their standing in life and how they internally deal with their own personal issues.
Others may find some parts of the book as dragging and I totally understand that especially those parts where the author was trying to explain a concept (e.g. 2008 US financial crisis) or digging an incident in the past (e.g. Sino-Japanese war) and connecting it to the present events in the book. I got lost at some point to be honest and I had to re-read some paragraphs because the author, at times, I feel like, she doesn’t know when to stop. But after finishing the book and contemplating what I just read, I realized that those long prose makes sense. Those parts enabled me to see the growth of the characters and understand their actions even more. I realized how those parts perfectly worked well with the plot.
And yes, let’s talk about the humor in this book. This is one those books where you’ll find yourself laughing out loud at one point and finding yourself in the brink of crying the next. The author knew exactly where to place those wry humor in the story. From sudden quips to witty dialogues that just appear out of the blue. There are a lot of laugh out loud moments. The humor of this book is one of the reason why I was so invested in the story.
“The people of the world could be divided into two groups: those who used all of their chances, and those who stood still through opportunity after opportunity, waiting for a moment that would never be perfect.”
― Jade Chang, The Wangs vs. the World
This is not just a rags to riches to rags story of an Asian-American immigrant trying to come to terms with his fate. This is not as some say, basic rich problems. There’s more in this book. What I liked the most is how the book offered a great study about the connections between family members. There’s that parents to siblings relationship, siblings to siblings relationship and stepparents to their stepchildren. I love the family dynamics of the story. Charles, who loves his children so much that he’s willing to do everything for them even to the point of ignoring his health condition. The siblings, despite not being together for a long time, it’s imminent how close they are and how strong their relationship is. The awkward moments between Barbra and her stepchildren that they eventually overcame. The situation of the family paved the way for them to connect in a way that they did not imagine. I like how at the end they realized how their yearnings are all the same. The book’s ending is open for interpretation which for me resonates hope.
I am excited to know what will Jade Change be up to next. I’m excited to read more from this author.
5 stars out of 5.
Note: My gratitude to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing me a review copy in exchange for a honest and unbiased review. In no way was my opinion about the book influenced.
Author: Jade Chang
Part of a Series: No
Release Year: October 2016
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
No. of Pages: 368 pages
About the Author
Jade Chang is a journalist who has covered arts, culture, and cities and a recipient of the Sundance Fellowship for Arts Journalism, the AIGA/Winterhouse Award for Design Criticism, and the James D. Houston Memorial scholarship from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. The Wangs vs. the World is her debut novel. She lives in Los Angeles.
She was recently a member of the Goodreads editorial team, where she worked on newsletters, author interviews, blog posts, infographics, and the quote of the day.