“J. Marshall Weymouth made Charles feel small, like he hadn’t made his first million by the time he was thirty-three years old, like he didn’t have a flaming redhead named Saoirse on call, like he hadn’t blown out of Taiwan with nothing but a urea pipeline and lucked himself into the most ideal wife-and-children combo possible. Made Charles feel like five thousand years of Chinese culture didn’t stand up to a few generations of penitent nobodies who thought a single act of tea-soaked rebellion was enough to crown a nation. Nobodies who took pride in being nicknamed for a winged parasitic bug. F@&*ing WASPs.”
This paragraph tells you everything you need to know about Charles Wang. He has just been told “no” by his new banker who feels that Charles’ new make-up line is based more on a political statement than good business sense of making a profit. When he doesn’t get what he wants and even when he does get what he wants, Charles is prickly, peevish and profane. His reaction to “Marsh” Weymouth’s refusal of a loan is to put his own home and all his assets, business and personal, on the line. That is how the Wang family lost everything in 2008.
After decades of falling effortlessly into success, Charles is stunned when his first failure is catastrophic. His only reason for coming to America was to make money so he could take back his ancestral land in China, where his family had lived in wealth for generations until the Communists took everything. He has accumulated tremendous wealth in America, but still rails against all the injustice he perceives everywhere.
The Wangs have done well. Charles met and married a gorgeous woman, May Lee, the mother of his three children, Saina, Andrew and Grace. Unfortunately, May Lee died in a helicopter accident over the Grand Canyon when Grace was just a few weeks old. Charles was sick that morning and couldn’t go on the ride. It didn’t take long for Charles to remarry a Chinese woman who was raised in Taiwan, as Charles had been. His second wife had christened herself Barbra after the well-known songstress. She was not beautiful but she was devoted to Charles and that was enough for him. His children all shared their mother’s beauty, especially little Gracie, 16 years old. He loved his kids and it was Charles who hugged and praised them, not May Lee. It was he who spoiled them.
Saina lives in New York, made a name for herself and earned some money in the art world. After four years of success, when failure presented itself, she slinked away to a small town in upstate New York, Helios, purchased a four-bedroom old house because it was on the edge of town and that is where she wanted to be, of Helios but not in Helios. She has already inherited her trust fund plus still has a couple of million of her own money, and no mortgage, so she is doing fine. The rest of the Wangs are driving cross country in May Lee’s old car to stay with Saina while they recover.
Andrew considers himself a stand-up comedian. He is also the typical middle child, people pleasing and peacemaking are second nature to him. Although in college he is still a virgin despite having had a couple ofgirlfriends. He is saving himself for true love. The trek across America is life changing for Andrew on many levels.
Gracie is a spoiled brat and a stunning beauty who knows it. She doesn’t understand why suddenly her family is poor and why she has to leave her boarding school. The head mistress even tried to take her laptop away, saying it belonged to the school but her daddy whipped out a few hundred dollar bills and charmed the head mistress into letting Gracie keep the laptop. Gawd, how could she survive without updating her fashion blog every day?
I have heard “The Wangs Vs The World” described as a comedy. I do not believe that was the author’s intent at all. Yes, it is funny, but it is funny because it is about people who are coping with the biggest catastrophe of their lives and they have no clue about how to cope with it. Chang uses her wit to present the story of a family whose parents are immigrants, undaunted by life, not friendless or excluded from society, or yearning for acceptance and wanting to emulate their white, black or brown neighbors. Charles and Barbra are immigrants after all and making a life in a new culture is not for the fainthearted. The Wang children are Americans who have learned to cope with “Where are you from?” type questions.
I rated this 3.50/5.0 based on the excellent writing, humor and character growth. The Wangs do not just react to events, there is some self-examination and real change in most of them. The first almost one-half of the book is absolutely glorious, but the second is uneven in my opinion. Some of the peripheral characters were not really needed.
I have no doubt that Jade Chang is/will be one of the strong writing voices of her generation. She has excellent writing skills, especially in setting up a story, sketching interesting characters, and inventing plot lines. The execution of those plot lines is a bit weak in some sections. She uses wit to make her points about the immigrant and first generation experience in America, especially for those of non-European ancestry, and about social, economic and political concerns of that time period, 2008. She made a big mistake, however, in using Chinese, no idea which dialect, interspersed throughout the story, without supplying translations for the 99.009% of Americans (I didn’t pull that out of the air – 2.9 million Americans speak Chinese in their homes) who do not know one word of the language. It was usually not possible to use context to figure it out. Not sure why she did that. We all know people slip into their native language at times, but she could have let us in on it. I didn’t feel like Googling all those sentences for translation.
Good read. Refreshingly different perspective on the immigrant experience. Great selection for a book club. It will be hard to forget Charles Wang.
Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher, as well as various occupations in the healthcare field. She shares a hometown, Springfield, Illinois, with Abraham Lincoln, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, reading, movies and writing are among her favorite activities. She is self-employed and works from her Naples home. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or maggiesbookinblog.com.