There is so much to love about this book. Charles Wang is the irrepressible young man whose father fled communist China for Taiwan. Charles grows up in Taipeh, then goes to the US, where he makes a fortune, has three terrific kids, loses his wife in a helicopter crash, re-marries - this time to a Taipeh girl he admired growing up - loses the fortune, goes on a road trip to NY, where his older daughter the artist now lives in an old farmhouse, and straight away flies to China to reclaim the Wang family land. That's the plot in a nutshell, and it doesn't begin to convey the depths and complexities of this remarkable story.
Jade Chang does a brilliant job portraying the characters. She really gets inside all of their various heads so that we KNOW them. First of all, there's Charles, sunny even in the depths of adversity, who is in love with his family. Then there are the kids: Saina the artist, who's had two successful shows and one that bombed, Andrew, who's at college and wants to be a stand-up comedian, and 16 yo Grace, pulled out of boarding school, who has a successful style blog. What's remarkable about these three is their love for each other, and how well they get on, without ever being sentimentalised or boring. Then there's stepmother Barbra, who is remote from the kids, who still revere their dead mother (though Charles doesn't). She has taken tough steps to be with Charles and escape her Taiwanese poverty and wonders why she is sticking to him now they've lost everything. Her character must have been harder to write, but Chang pulls it off brilliantly. We see Barbra's point of view, and can sympathise with her. She softens towards the end of the book, and becomes closer to the kids. I like the fact that the Chinese in the book isn't translated. Chang does an excellent job of allowing us to glimpse the meaning. The peripheral characters are thoroughly realised too, including the fascinating but abominable Grayson, to whom Saina was engaged, her next boyfriend Leo, the black, orphaned child who is now an organic farmer, and so on.
Another thing to like about the book is the depth of knowledge of so many diverse topics. An economics professor has a rave about the 2008 financial meltdown. A bayou wedding party makes you feel like you're there eating crawdads. Casual racism is neatly encapsulated. The NY art scene comes alive. We are shown how a successful business may come undone, the old and new Chinas, what it's like to stand up at an open mic in a strange city, etc. All this at a romping pace that has you glued to the page. This really is a terrific book, and even if Chang never writes another thing, her place in literary history is assured.