The Short Version: Charles Wang came to America with next-to-nothing and turned himself into a makeup mogul. Two wives, three children, and a few decades later, he wakes up to find he’s lost everything in the early days of the 2008 financial crisis. So he packs up the car, picks up two of the kids, and drives across the US to meet the third – with the intention of, eventually, making his way back to China to reclaim the ancestral lands that were once his. But can the family survive this latest turmoil?
The Review: When an author decides to go big with their debut, I always want to applaud. If it makes a bit of a mess, who cares? I’d rather see an author make a splash and show just how big their heart is than to see them try something safe – and Jade Chang definitely does the former with The Wangs vs. the World. She packs several whole worlds into the 360-odd pages of this novel and she does it in such a way that you’re willing to forgive the sprawl and the shagginess because of how damn impressive it all is.
We first meet Charles Wang, the patriarch of the family. He was born in China, exiled to Taiwan, and then escaped to California where he hit it rich in the makeup scene after a chance discovery that urea is in many makeup products and he happened to have a line on some for cheap. When the book opens, he see him falling to earth: all of his money is gone. All of it. It’s 2008 and he’s not the only one, but at this point it feels like he might be. There’s some Arrested Development-esque humor to this story, keeping it light where it could be horribly bleak, and Chang enjoys setting Charles up against the hegemony of white America – playing it both for pathos and for laughs, and getting away with it.
We’re then introduced, rather in turn, to the rest of the Wang family: eldest daughter Saina, middle child Andrew, youngest daughter Grace, and step-mom Barbra. They all share the narrative load as Chang hops through their close-third-person points-of-view and creates fully rendered members of this family while also keeping them tightly knitted together, producing a greater narrative potency of a family (the Wangs) against any and all comers (the world) even as they often spar with, or at least bounce off of, one another. Interestingly – and I loved this, although I imagine people will either love or hate it with little middle ground – their car also gets a few chapters of narration. It’s a daring move by Chang and it takes the reader by surprise each time it happens… but Chang pulls it off. Does it need to be there? Perhaps not – but it lends to that sprawling big family novel thing that I personally find so endearing and it felt so bold that I couldn’t help but enjoy it.
The sprawl also manifests itself in the way that each of the Wangs’ stories ends up being rather greater than the whole. Saina’s story, in particular, felt like the one that I almost would rather be reading in its entirety: she’s the one member of the family who has, mainly by virtue of age, made it out into the world in her own right. She’s 28, she has had and lost a successful art career, had and lost a fiancé, and now she’s retreated to upstate New York to plot her next steps. Her story, perhaps because it exists so far outside the sphere of the road-tripping rest of her family, often feels like it is running parallel instead of intertwining – and when the family does finally make it to her doorstep, I was still more engaged by Saina’s chapters and the way she was handling this life-reversal than I was interested in how young Grace was dealing with it or how Charles was still plotting his way to China.
In the tradition of some of the best family novels, this novel also both is and completely is not about the journey – and by “journey”, I do mean the ultimate goal of Charles’ to reclaim the land his family lost to the Communists in China. In fact, when the novel did finally make it to China, I found that my interest began to flag a bit. I was more interested in how these characters interacted and responded to each other and to the strangeness of their new lives than I was in seeing any sort of traditional resolution. The ending of the novel reminded me of novels like This is Where I Leave You – and while I don’t at all think that’s a bad thing to be, it did feel a little rote and caused me to reflect back on the rest of the novel as perhaps a bit less inventive than I’d given it credit for. But even if she’s here telling a story whose beats feel familiar to ones we’ve already heard, she’s telling it with a cast of characters that I’ll bet you’ve never encountered before. And that’s huge, to me. It’s a big deal that this novel features the classic American story of a fractured-family-roadtrip but with a cast that isn’t a white family. It’s the 21st Century and we’re overdue for stories that feature casts as diverse as our country – or, perhaps even more importantly, stories that feature casts without any white main characters. We don’t need true representation of the makeup of the US, we need more diverse stories.
And Jade Chang’s Wang family delivers in spades.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The book gets off to a delightful, rollicking start, and all of these characters are not only vividly rendered but joyfully alive. The Wangs are a family whose story has not been told, or at least not as widely as the stories of the likes of the Lamberts. Chang does seek to cram a lot into this book and, like a suitcase you have to sit on to close, it bulges and sprawls in places – but the novel revels in that and I think it’s safe to say that a reader will too. Chang is funny, heartfelt, and sharply observant, tucking into a screwed-up-family novel keen insights on race, the financial crisis, the immigrant narrative, and stories of what it means to rise and fall in America. A terrific and big-hearted debut.