cover image The Fortunes

The Fortunes

Peter Ho Davies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (282p) ISBN 978-0-544-26370-3

Though billed as a novel, The Fortunes could more aptly be described as a collection of four novellas, each of which explores a different facet of Chinese-American experience. The first section, “Gold,” is set during the mid-19th century and follows Ling, an orphan, from his childhood on Pearl River in China to Gold Mountain, Calif., where he works first in a laundry and then as a valet before becoming an unlikely organizer of Chinese workers building the Central Pacific Railway. In “Silver,” Davies imagines the lonely inner life of 1930s actress Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese-American star, who has affairs with many leading men but never marries any of them. “Jade” takes place in the 1980s, against the backdrop of the dying American auto industry, and focuses on the mistaken identity of a Chinese-American man taken to be Japanese in a deadly strip club brawl. In “Pearl,” the final section, a present-day middle-aged American writer, whose mother was from China, now finds himself there for the first time to adopt a baby girl with his Caucasian wife. The book’s scope is impressive, but what’s even more staggering is the utter intimacy and honesty of each character’s introspection. More extraordinary still is the depth and the texture created by the juxtaposition of different eras, making for a story not just of any one person but of hundreds of years and tens of millions of people. Davies (The Welsh Girl) has created a brilliant, absorbing masterpiece. Agent: Maria Massie, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (Sept.)