Book Review: World And Town, by Gish Jen
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Date Published: January 2010
# Of Pages: 386 pages
Synopsis: Hattie Kong—the spirited offspring of a descendant of Confucius and an American missionary to China—has, in her fiftieth year of living in the United States, lost both her husband and her best friend to cancer. It is an utterly devastating loss, of course, and also heartbreakingly absurd: a little, she thinks, “like having twins. She got to book the same church with the same pianist for both funerals and did think she should have gotten some sort of twofer from the crematorium.”
But now, two years later, it is time for Hattie to start over. She moves to the town of Riverlake, where she is soon joined by an immigrant Cambodian family on the run from their inner-city troubles, as well as—quite unexpectedly—by a just-retired neuroscientist ex-lover named Carter Hatch. All of them are, like Hattie, looking for a new start in a town that might once have represented the rock-solid base of American life but that is itself challenged, in 2001, by cell-phone towers and chain stores, struggling family farms and fundamentalist Christians.
What Hattie makes of this situation is at the center of a novel that asks deep and absorbing questions about religion, home, America, what neighbors are, what love is, and, in the largest sense, what “worlds” we make of the world.
Moving, humorous, compassionate, and expansive, World and Town is as rich in character as it is brilliantly evocative of its time and place. This is a truly masterful novel—enthralling, essential, and satisfying.
.....For being a well-written story about acceptance and belonging
This is my first time reading this author, and I like her style!
The protagonist is a fun character. Hattie's a widow who's able to laugh at herself. She's a retired woman by the time this book starts, but that's not a bad thing from her point of view. She's had a fulfilling life, and, even at an older age, she's an independent woman.
Hattie, however, is still feeling out of place in her town of Riverlake. She lacks a sense of identity, something that has plagued her for decades, being half Chinese, half American. And that's how she gets involved with her new Cambodian neighbors, another group of people who are feeling displaced and unsure of where they belong, which gives Hattie that sense of feeling needed.
The theme of this book is definitely about identity and belonging in a community. You follow different characters as they try to find the place/community they can belong to, and watch as they either fail or succeed.
Another major theme also seems to be mourning the past and the people each character lost. The Cambodian family in particular had a really terrible experience in their home country, something that still affects the father, Chhung. I don't know if I really like Chhung, but I definitely feel sorry for him.
What makes this book really good, however, is the writing style. The author tells the story from three points of view: Hattie (our elderly protagonist), Sophy (the teenage Cambodian daughter who feels like she should have never been born), and Everett (a local farmer who finds himself completely displaced by his wife of 37 years). All three characters are completely different from each other, and you can see it in how they narrate their part of the story. Gish Jen did a brilliant job changing the style of narration to fit each character: Hattie's thoughtful pondering, Sophy's fast-paced rambling, and Everett's steady and ordered opinion. This is the first time I've seen an author successfully depict a character's personality in their writing style, with the ability to change the style from one character to the next. Absolutely genius!
All in all, I really enjoyed this book. It has some dark and sad parts, with flawed characters that you're not sure you can like, but with some excellent writing, and an insightful look into Chinese, American, and Cambodian cultures. This is certainly a novel that I will read again; it feels like the kind of book that you'll get more out of on the re-read. Definitely an unforgettable story.