What We Were Promised (Tan)

What We Were Promised 
Lucy Tan, 2018
Little, Brown & Company
336 pp.

Set in modern Shanghai, a debut by a Chinese-American writer about a prodigal son whose unexpected return forces his newly wealthy family to confront painful secrets and unfulfilled promises.

After years of chasing the American dream, the Zhen family has moved back to China.

Settling into a luxurious serviced apartment in Shanghai, Wei, Lina, and their daughter, Karen, join an elite community of Chinese-born, Western-educated professionals who have returned to a radically transformed city.

One morning, in the eighth tower of Lanson Suites, Lina discovers that a treasured ivory bracelet has gone missing. This incident sets off a wave of unease that ripples throughout the Zhen household. Wei, a marketing strategist, bows under the guilt of not having engaged in nobler work.

Meanwhile, Lina, lonely in her new life of leisure, assumes the modern moniker taitai—a housewife who does no housework at all. She is haunted by the circumstances surrounding her arranged marriage to Wei and her lingering feelings for his brother, Qiang.

Sunny, the family's housekeeper, is a keen but silent observer of these tensions. An unmarried woman trying to carve a place for herself in society, she understands the power of well-kept secrets.

When Qiang reappears in Shanghai after decades on the run with a local gang, the family must finally come to terms with the past and its indelible mark on their futures.

From a silk-producing village in rural China, up the corporate ladder in suburban America, and back again to the post-Maoist nouveaux riches of modern Shanghai, What We Were Promised explores the question of what we owe to our country, our families, and ourselves. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1987
Raised—Livingston, New Jersey, USA
Education—B.A., New York University; M.F.A., University of Wisconsin
Awards—August Derleth Prize
Currently—living in Madison, Wisconsin

Lucy Tan grew up in New Jersey and has spent much of her adult life in New York and Shanghai. She received her B.A. from New York University and her M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was awarded the 2016 August Derleth Prize.

Her fiction has been published in journals such as Asia Literary Review and Ploughshares, where she was winner of the 2015 Emerging Writer's Contest. This is her first novel. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
[A]n elegant debut novel
Newark Star Ledger

The magnificence and splendor of modern Shanghai come to life in Lucy Tan's debut novel.
Palm Beach Post

[A] solid debut…. Sunny and Wei’s stories are arresting, but Qiang and Lina come off as entitled in spite of the author’s efforts to make them sympathetic. Despite this, the novel presents an intriguing portrait of class, duty, and family.
Publishers Weekly

Tan's talent as a storyteller clearly shines through her strong plot lines and characterization; readers will want to know more about each well-crafted player.… [A] surprising and down-to-earth tale and entertaining read. —Shirley Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA
Library Journal

Like the Emerald City in Oz… Shanghai provides the backdrop for an examination of the clash between old and new lifestyles and values…. Tan examines the tension behind the facade of the moneyed …where everyone seems to be an expat in their own country.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. What promises—spoken and unspoken—have these characters made to one another, to themselves, and to the countries they feel allegiance to?

2. How do these self-expectations drive or limit their actions?

3. What is the significance of this story being set in Shanghai? How does the physical, cultural landscape serve as context for these characters’ lives?

4. How do Lina and Wei’s relationships to China and America change throughout time?

5. What is Sunny’s relationship with her hometown, and how does it evolve throughout the novel?

6. What are the ways in which the characters in this novel each assume the role of a caretaker? Do these different roles and responsibilities shift throughout the novel?

7. Lina feels that she may have limited herself in her youth by choosing between the Zhen brothers rather than pursuing a post-college plan of her own devising. Do you think she regrets her decision?

8. What do you think Lina and Wei’s hopes are for Karen’s future?

9. How has Sunny’s perception of her own identity and abilities evolved by the end of the novel?

10. "There’s a reason you’re drawn to whatever it is, or whoever it is, you’re falling for," says Qiang on page 187. "They have something you’re missing." Lina believes he is talking about her here. Do you agree?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2020