Sunday, September 11, 2016

Book Review: "The Wangs vs. the World" by Jade Chang

Before I start my review of Jade Chang's The Wangs vs. the World, here's a question: how do you feel when an author has their characters frequently speak in a different language, and they don't provide translation? Does that irritate you? It does me, even if I can generally figure out what they're saying.

"History had started fucking Charles Wang, and America had finished the job."

Charles Wang was a force to be reckoned with, a self-made man who left his home in Taiwan and over the years, built a multi-million-dollar cosmetics empire. He and his wife, Barbra (yes, she named herself for Barbra Streisand) rub elbows with celebrities and are written about in magazines and newspapers.

But then the financial crisis hits the U.S., and that, coupled with Charles' unending ambition and his belief that he knows better than financial experts, leads to his total ruin. His house, his companies, his assets get seized by the bank, and even his cars get repossessed. He's angry and vows this won't be the last of him, so he plans to travel to China, where he's convinced an ancient law will allow him to claim his family's ancestral lands, so he can get back on top again and prove his might.

First, he pulls his precocious, style-savvy daughter Gracie out of boarding school he hasn't been able to pay for, tells his aspiring comedian son Andrew that there's no more money for college (or his expensive SUV, which gets repossessed), and Charles, Barbra, and the children plan to make a road trip from the West Coast to the upstate New York home of his oldest daughter Saina, a once-renowned artist who has gone into hiding after her last show was met with critical disdain.

But Charles has no idea what kind of issues each member of his family is dealing with, and how those issues will come into play during their roadtrip, and truth be told, he isn't that interested. On this trip, relationships, careers, even lives are at stake. Will Charles be able to regain his position on top, and restore his family's lives to the manner in which they've become accustomed?

To be honest, I had a lot of issues with this book, not the least of which was the foreign dialogue issue I mentioned at the start of this review. Based on the description of the book, I expected it to be a less-campy version of one of Kevin Kwan's books (Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend), but it definitely wasn't. I got the impression, however, that parts of it were intended to be funny but they just fell flat for me.

My biggest problem with this book was that I cared very little for any of the characters. Any time I felt one of them was sympathetic they did something else to change my mind. For a book with Charles Wang as its anchor, the story didn't dwell on him as much until the end, choosing instead to focus on his three children and his wife, and it felt as if Chang just kept throwing new curves at them. This was definitely a book I thought about not finishing more than a few times, because the story kept dragging on, and it just kept getting sillier.

I really liked Chang's ear for dialogue (when it was all in English) and she has a talent for evoking images and characters. Maybe I just had unfair expectations of this book, but this one just didn't work for me.

NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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