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.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Lucy Tan’s debut novel examines the contradictions of contemporary Shanghai through a family coming to terms with what their pursuit of success has cost them. After returning from decades in America, Wei and Lina Zhen find their comfortably prosperous lives thrown into turmoil by the reappearance of Wei's gangster brother, Qiang. With a Downton Abbey–like focus on the family's dutiful servants, Tan examines themes like class, consumerism, job anxiety, and arranged marriage. We were fascinated by her evocative portrait of a family—and a city—struggling to find solid ground in a constantly shifting world.
Tan's solid debut centers on Shanghai housewife Lina Zhen and her observant former housekeeper, Sunny. Lina still holds a torch for Qiang, the wild brother of her husband, Wei, though Qiang has been gone for 20 years. After living in the U.S., the Zhen family relocates to Shanghai, now a part of the upper class, for Wei's lucrative, high-profile marketing job, which allows Lina to forgo working and live a life of leisure. She's often at home while Wei works late and on weekends, tending to her 12-year-old daughter, Karen, when she isn't being educated abroad. When Qiang sees Wei on television and contacts the family, Lina looks forward to finally being able to ask him why he reneged on their plans to run away together before her wedding. In anticipation of spending time with Qiang, Lina hires Sunny, their housekeeper of five years before they moved to the U.S., to look after Karen for the summer. Sunny picks up on the situation in the household and wonders how Wei can remain so clueless. Sunny also sends part of her paycheck back to her family in Hefei, who wonder why she prefers to work rather than settle down and have a baby. 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.
What We Were Promised
I loved this book. I don’t know anything about Chinese culture but I felt welcomed into the lives of these special people. The ending caught me by surprise and when I finished I wanted more. Can’t wait for this to be a movie!
Amazing and touching
As a Chinese American, this book holds a dear place in my heart. The author effectively captures the struggle between east and west, one that many immigrants face. The writing flows well and the switch between time periods and characters makes the story very interesting. Would highly recommend to my fellow Chinese Americans or others who are interested in reading the experiences of one!