The Chinese Groove
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
An Amazon Editors' Pick
People, A Best Book of the Year
For readers of Less and The Wangs Vs. The World, a buoyant, good-hearted, and sharply written novel about a blithely optimistic immigrant with big dreams, dire prospects, and a fractured extended family in need of his help—even if they don't know it yet
Eighteen-year-old Shelley, born into a much-despised branch of the Zheng family in Yunnan Province and living in the shadow of his widowed father’s grief, dreams of bigger things. Buoyed by an exuberant heart and his cousin Deng’s tall tales about the United States, Shelley heads to San Francisco to claim his destiny, confident that any hurdles will be easily overcome by the awesome powers of the “Chinese groove,” a belief in the unspoken bonds between countrymen that transcend time and borders.
Upon arrival, Shelley is dismayed to find that his “rich uncle” is in fact his unemployed second cousin once removed and that the grand guest room he’d envisioned is but a scratchy sofa. The indefinite stay he’d planned for? That has a firm two-week expiration date. Even worse, the loving family he hoped would embrace him is in shambles, shattered by a senseless tragedy that has cleaved the family in two. They want nothing to do with this youthful bounder who’s barged into their lives. Ever the optimist, Shelley concocts a plan to resuscitate his American dream by insinuating himself into the family. And, who knows, maybe he’ll even manage to bring them back together in the process.
Ma (The Year She Left Us) returns with the vibrant story of a Chinese immigrant living in present-day San Francisco. Zheng Xue Li, known as Shelley, is 18 when his father sends him to study in the U.S.—as part of his deceased mother's dream for him—and live with his rich uncle, Ted, whose family owns a store. Shelley hopes a new life in Ted's household will provide the stability for him to pursue his dreams of becoming a poet and the status to help him win back his English ex-girlfriend, Lisbet, but his expectations are sunk upon arrival. Turns out Ted's neither rich nor his uncle (he's a second cousin), and Shelley can only stay for two weeks. Soon Shelley's left to juggle school, a restaurant job, and life in a crowded rooming house—with a little help from the "Chinese groove," or the unspoken connection among fellow Chinese immigrants. Though the episodic plot gets a bit unwieldy with its many side characters and hurdles—a cousin coming to collect a debt, an ever elusive Lisbet—Ma does a good job conveying the bonds of Shelley's community and family. This immersive story is worth a look. Agent: Stacy Testa, Writers House.