Gish Jen believes in America. More specifically, she believes in an America with room for everyone, and she knows this doesn't come easily. In novels like Mona In The Promised Land and the short-story collection Who's Irish?, Jen focuses on characters whose identity crises could occur nowhere else. Mona's heroine adopts Judaism and lives a comfortable suburban existence, thanks to her Chinese immigrant parents' thriving pancake house. The narrator of Irish's title story doesn't quite know how to regard her new Irish-Chinese-American family. Jen doesn't dodge the hard questions, but her generous view of her characters and her fundamentally comic sensibility has favored working toward happy endings, or at least the semblance of order.
That's also true of Jen's new The Love Wife, but less true than before. Offering disquieting variations on her old themes, the novel unfolds in the late '90s in a tucked-away corner of Massachusetts that second-generation Chinese-American Carnegie Wong and his Caucasian wife Janie call home. Janie lost her original identity years ago to the race-baiting nickname chosen by her overbearing mother-in-law: "Blondie." The novel sets her up to lose even more. Honoring Mama Wong's will, they take in Carnegie's relation Lan, who travels from China ostensibly to study while helping with Carnegie and Blondie's three kids, but who soon ingratiates herself into the house and oversteps her prescribed role.
Jen structures her novel in the form of an oral historyor, as eventually proves more appropriate, a deposition. Each character takes turns offering perspective on the events of Lan's stay, in a device that plays to Jen's strengths as a writer. Viewed from the outside, The Love Wife becomes a tale of heroes and villains. Told by the participants, it deepens into a more human story of misunderstandings across the lines of generations and cultures.
Though still a witty, fond observer of her characters, Jen allows a slow-building pessimism to seize hold of her story. Some gulfs prove too deep, but just as often, and just as dangerously, some attachments prove too strong to break. Mama Wong's leftover clothing proves a natural fit for Lan, much to Carnegie's confusion. An indulgent babysitter, Lan bonds with Carnegie and Blondie's adopted Asian-American daughters in ways Blondie never could. Every attempt to return to the old setup erupts into violence. And, while the novel doesn't dwell on tragedy, it's not tidy, either. It's a different, less comforting kind of American story.