Sunday, November 7, 2010

World and Town, by Gish Jen

Hattie Kong is a in her late 60s, living in a small New England town where she has retreated following the death of her husband and best friend (whose sarcastic voice rings in Hattie's head) and her retirement as a public school teacher. She was born in China to a Chinese father and American missionary mother and was sent to her mother's family in Iowa at age 17 because of the danger posed by Mao's revolution. Ever since, she has felt like an outsider, a feeling reinforced by the betrayal of her first love, Carter Hatch, when she was trying to establish herself as a research scientist.

Sad and lonely, Hattie becomes interested in the family of Cambodian refugees who have recently moved in down the hill from her. The family is clearly struggling, and Hattie reaches out to help them, but her help is met with varying degrees of acceptance. At first she is most successful with teenage daughter Sophy (we later learn two other daughters are in foster care in another state), to whom Hattie offers Chinese lessons, cookies, and a dog. But Hattie is not the only one who takes an interest in the girl; Ginny, a member of an evangelical church, targets Sophy and the community cum family that the church offers appeals to the girl, whose own family is struggling. Meanwhile, Ginny has left her husband Everett, who is not taking it well. Sophy's brother is expected of terrorism in the wake of 9/11. And Carter Hatch has moved to Hattie's town.

While my description makes World and Town sound like a soap opera, it's actually much more. Told from the perspectives of Hattie, Sophy, and Everett, the story is an exploration of family and community--of what it means to belong. While Hattie gets more "air time" than the other narrators, all three are rich characters that the reader cares deeply about.

Recently, I seem to be finding a lot of books too long--and this one was no exception. The first 350 pages drew me along, while I felt like I was slogging through the last 30, only to find the ending just a bit too pat.

Despite my misgivings about the ending, I enjoyed the book, the characterizations, and the dark wit with which Jen infuses the story.

Favorite passages:

A call! Will everything involving her child remain an event forever?

In what you are proud of, Lee used to say, you can see in what way you are nuts.

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