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Jade Chang delivers a rollicking, off-beat, on-target illustration of culture clash and the American dream turned on its head. With a tight cast of characters, Chang offers a sympathetic look at the plight of one family struggling through the 2008 recession. We watch its members fumble, often hilariously, through a rocky adjustment to their new status—from the haves to the have-nots.

When the financial stability of their lives evaporates—including loss of a luxurious home—the Wangs embark on a road trip reminiscent of the journey in the movie Little Miss Sunshine. Like the Hoover family, the Wangs are a dysfunctional bunch, bound together by common folly and questionable goals.

If you’re a fan of the heart-rending Asian fiction genre that gave us Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, this book may not be for you. While there are both pathos and flawed characters struggling to find meaning, this story is laced heavily with a sense of the ridiculous.

What could have been presented as unrelenting tragedy is, instead, leavened by a series of comical mishaps. Chang shows the futility of trying to wrestle security and happiness from a life as uncertain as the one we all face, while  simultaneously outlining each character’s struggle to find their own path.

Taking aim at the cliché of the American dream, Chang also targets the art world, artists, university professors, the fashion industry, and technology. She explains the recent recession in a neat one-page synopsis—listing multiple factors that combined to create a world economic disaster and skewering the character traits of the major players who engineered it.

Paralleling the global crisis, the patriarch of the Wang family has engineered his own financial crisis and must now whisk everyone off on a journey. Time and again, like the actual Wall Street’s financiers, Charles Wang displays the same hubris and lack of empathy that landed him in trouble in the first place. Never grasping that his life might not be charmed, he clings to the belief that the return of his vast fortune is just around the corner.

Charles begins to respond to a need to “win,” making poorer and poorer choices. He is convinced that there is no possible way he could fail. After stealing something from every single member of the family (up to and including the family’s nursemaid), he leaves them and retreats to China with a fragment of his father’s bone in his pocket. He hopes to redeem himself by laying claim to land that had belonged to his family before the Communist take over.

While Charles insists on looking backward—only reluctantly realizing that you can never go home—the rest of his family is moving resolutely forward without him. Each grows in surprising and highly entertaining ways: from his aspiring stand-up comedian son and fashion-genius daughter to his determined, resourceful second wife.

The author peppers the story with a handful of poignant moments, most of them in the second half, which stand in stark contrast to the wild humor of the first half. As the American dream unravels, Chang illustrates the way one family learns to find connections to one another.

See our Reading Guide for The Wangs Vs. the World.

 


Cara Kless
Cara spent 10 years as a Library Reader’s Advisor in between performing with a belly dance troupe and teaching dance classes. She prefers Swinburne to Shelley, Faulkner to Hemingway, and can be found on most rainy days curled up with a good book and a cup of earl gray, hot
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