Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream

John Derbyshire, Author
John Derbyshire, Author St. Martin's Press $22.95 (0p) ISBN 978-0-312-14044-1
Reviewed on: 03/04/1996
Release date: 03/01/1996
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-312-15649-7
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Initially a gritty portrait of a shirt-on-his-back mainland Chinese emigre, Derbyshire's first novel segues into a credulity-stretching but enjoyable flight of fancy. We first meet narrator Chai and his wife, Ding, at home on Long Island, during an evening of Scrabble and moon cakes. A former Red Guard whose disaffection with Maoism was accelerated by witnessing politically excused rapes and killings during the Cultural Revolution, Chai has come to this bourgeois life through a circuitous route. Escaping China by swimming to Hong Kong, he rose from messenger to banking executive, attaining a hard-to-swallow mastery of Western culture in part by memorizing David Copperfield. All along, he has worshipped a sequence of heroes, from Lu Xun, an iconoclastic Chinese writer of the 1920s and '30s, to Calvin Coolidge, and he still thinks about Selina, a young Hong Kong receptionist who broke his heart 20 years ago. Now Chai learns that Selina is living in Cambridge, Mass., and he decides to rekindle their relationship. Ding's ploy to avert this tryst is a delightful, subtle bit of silliness and includes a hilarious scene in which Chai thinks he is being chided by Coolidge's ghost. Derbyshire clearly knows Eastern and Western mores, and those willing to overlook the novel's plot dissonance should enjoy this debut both as a lighthearted romantic romp and as a knowing literary study of the tensions between self-discipline and determinism. (Mar.)
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