A New York Times Notable Book
In these pages, acclaimed author Gish Jen portrays the day-to-day of American multiculturalism with poignancy and wit, introducing us to teenaged Mona Chang, who in 1968 moves with her newly prosperous family to Scarshill, New York. Here, the Chinese are seen as "the new Jews." What could be more natural than for Mona to take this literally—even to the point of converting? As Mona attends temple "rap" sessions and falls in love (with a nice Jewish boy who lives in a tepee), Jen introduces us to one of the most charming and sweet-spirited heroines in recent fiction, a girl who can wisecrack with perfect aplomb even when she's organizing the help in her father's pancake house. On every page, Gish Jen sets our received notions spinning with a wit as dry as a latter-day Jane Austen's.
The rich stew of ethnic differences in America's melting pot provides robust fare in Jen's wickedly and hilariously observant second novel. In chronicling the coming-of-age of a refreshingly un-neurotic Chinese-American teenager, Jen casts an ironic eye on some of the hypocrisies of contemporary society, and her amusing insights illuminate several minority cultures. Mona Chang is in eighth grade in the late 1960s when her family moves to Scarshill, an affluent, mainly Jewish suburb of New York City. Her parents, upwardly mobile Helen and Ralph Chang, met in Jen's acclaimed first novel, Typical American. Smart, wisecracking Mona soon comes to the conclusion that "if you want to know how to be a minority, there's nobody better at it than the Jews,'' and she approves of Judaism's intellectual latitude and social activism. "American means being whatever you want, and I happened to pick being Jewish,'' Mona says. Her parents are appalled; by claiming the freedom to choose, Mona is violating what Jen presents as one of the basic rules of Chinese parent-child relationships. But being a "solo Jew" is only one of Mona's problems as she navigates the difficult shoals of adolescence as an ethnic and religious maverick as bewildered as any teenager by the mysteries of love and sex. Her tentative romances with a Japanese student and with a Jewish pseudointellectual dropout are also complicated by social idealism. When Mona and her boyfriend decide to move the black cook at the Changs' pancake restaurant into her best friend Barbara Guglestein's imposing house, the results are predictably droll. Jen matches intelligence with affectionate wit, narrative skill with firm knowledge of human nature.