Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing me with an advanced copy of Jade Chang's novel, The Wangs vs. the World, in exchange for an honest review.
PLOT - Charles Wang's life is imploding. The immense fortune from his cosmetics empire, a business that he built from the ground up when he immigrated from China, is gone. Due to bad investments, his business, his cars, house, and most of his savings are gone. Charles must break the news to his three children, all of whom were born in America and who have never known poverty.
His fashionista, youngest daughter, Grace, is pulled out of her private boarding school. Andrew, his son who has aspirations of being a comedian, is forced to drop out of college. Charles takes his spoiled wife, Barbra and his kids, on a cross-country road trip, to the home of his eldest daughter, Saina. Saina, an artist in New York, is the only family member with assets. Unbeknownst to his family, Charles has a grander scheme of returning to China to reclaim his family ancestral land that was lost during the Cultural Revolution.
LIKE- Chang has written a modern day The Grapes of Wrath. I love Steinbeck and his masterpiece is one of my favorite classic novels, so I do not give this praise lightly. The similarities are not just a journey story, but more in the way that Chang focuses on the impact this new circumstance has on each of her characters, how they both bond together. and have their private revelations. The theme is change, in all of its forms.
Wangs vs. the World has a slow build and like peeling back the layers of an onion, Chang slowly reveals the layers. After the first third of the story, I was completely captivated by these characters, especially Charles, who has seemingly lost everything, but keeps pushing forward. Charles is a bold contrast to his children, who also have big dreams, but are unsure of themselves. Their sudden change in circumstance makes them question their ambitions, rather than take notice of their father, a self-made man. What's interesting about Charles, is when he has lost what he has built, he looks towards reclaiming the land that his family has lost, which seems like a far more difficult goal than rebuilding his business. Maybe that's the point; Charles reaching for the sky. Chang has filled her story with complex characters, who are struggling to find a course for their lives, as they deal with family, cultural, and economic issues.
I think it's fairly obvious that a major theme of the story would be Charles realizing that despite his wealth, he is a lucky man for his family. However, Chang doesn't write such an trite story. The Wangs have their differences and normal family misunderstandings, but this is never a family that lacks love or takes each other for granted. The kids are not simply spoiled rich kids and Charles is not the hardworking businessman who sacrifices his family to build a business. The bonds run deep in the Wang family.
Chang lightens the mood with a frequent dose of humor, often due to an awkward or uncomfortable situation. The story heads in unexpected and kind of zany directions. I never knew where Chang was going to take her story next, which is a huge part of the charm.
DISLIKE- I didn't immediately get into the story, it took about a hundred pages to hook me. The characters take awhile to grow on me. If I hadn't been given an advanced copy, I'm not sure that I would have stuck with it. I'm glad I did though.
RECOMMEND- Yes. Chang is an immense talent. The Wangs vs. The World is an epic ride with a lot of heart. I found Charles, with his plucky spirit to be inspirational.