THE LOVE WIFE

Gish Jen, Author . Knopf $25 (400p) ISBN 978-1-4000-4213-5

A meddlesome Chinese-American mother bequeaths a Chinese nanny to her ambivalent son and his big blonde wife in this darkly comic fairy tale about cultural assimilation, biological destiny and domestic warfare. In her earlier novels (Typical American ; etc.) and short stories, Jen established a sort of Asian Richter scale, registering the culture shock of new and not-so-new Chinese immigrants and their complicated, irrepressible families. Here she focuses on the racially mixed Wong family: Carnegie; his older wife, Janie (dubbed "Blondie" by Carnegie's hilariously awful mother); two adopted Asian daughters (the difficult teenager Lizzy and the hypersensitive Wendy); and a "bio" baby son who looks disturbingly non-Asian. When Carnegie's mother dies after a long bout with Alzheimer's, the Wongs are shocked to learn that she has arranged for an extended visit by a female relative from the Mainland, the unmarried, mysterious Lan. A year older than Blondie, whose "dewlap" and resemblance to an "Aeroflot" are beginning to alarm Carnegie, Lan seems quaint, "plainish" and self-effacing; soon her ambiguous status, passive-aggressiveness and blooming beauty threaten to destabilize the already rocky Wong marriage. Not only does she captivate Carnegie, who is dismayed and fascinated by his own rediscovered Chinese identity, she also preys on the Wong girls' insecurity as Blondie's nonbiological daughters. What threatens to turn into a standard evil-nanny plot takes on unexpected depth as Jen captures the not always likable Wong family with her trademark compassion, laser-like attention to detail and quirky wit. Though the shifting first-person narratives sometimes come off as awkwardly stagey (particularly Carnegie's, with comments like "I was entranced by the eternal return of villanelles—that deathless morph"), this novel has a robust, lived-in quality that makes you miss it when it's over. Agent, Maxine Groffsky. 11-city author tour. (Sept.)

Reviewed on: 07/26/2004
Release date: 09/01/2004
Genre: Fiction
Peanut Press/Palm Reader - 274 pages - 978-1-4000-4379-8
Paperback - 379 pages - 978-1-4000-7651-2
Compact Disc - 978-1-4193-1276-2
Compact Disc - 978-1-4193-0481-1
Analog Audio Cassette - 978-1-4193-1274-8
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