cover image Mambo in Chinatown

Mambo in Chinatown

Jean Kwok. Riverhead Books, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-59463-200-6

Charlie Wong can’t catch a break: instead of taking after her late, beautiful dancer mother, she’s awkward and clumsy, and unlike her gifted younger sister, Lisa, she’s a terrible student. After struggling through high school, she lands a dishwasher job in New York City’s Chinatown, alongside her noodle-maker father. She then goes to work at a dance studio, where she makes for a terrible receptionist, but when Charlie has to teach a beginner’s dance class, Kwok (Girl in Translation) pulls out all the stops for an ugly-duckling story. The kind and patient studio staff transforms Charlie by revealing her to herself: underneath her baggy hand-me-downs, she has a strong and sexy body; what she lacks in poise, she makes up for in rhythm, line, and the willingness to work until her feet bleed. While Kwok’s depiction of Chinatown as a city within the larger city is intriguing, her writing is blunt, and the plot—including Charlie’s struggles, successes, and her burgeoning relationship with a dance student—is predictable. The lack of surprise dulls the victories and revelations. Agent: Suzanne Gluck, WME Entertainment. (June)