Lan Samantha Chang’s fourth book, the terrific novel The Family Chao, draws inspiration from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which three brothers struggle against their father’s tyrannical behavior. Instead of 19th-century Russia, Chang’s dialogue-driven novel is set in contemporary Haven, a small town in Wisconsin where larger-than-life patriarch Leo Chao and his wife, Winnie, have built a successful Chinese restaurant with the help of their three sons and O-Lan, a recent immigrant from Guangzhou who nobody seems to know much about.
The Chao family is about to gather for their annual holiday party. Dagou, the oldest son, works for Leo in the hope of eventually taking over the business. Middle son Ming is in New York pursuing a financial career, and the youngest, James, is in college. When Ming and James return to Haven for the holidays, they find their family in chaos: Winnie has taken refuge in a Buddhist nunnery, and Dagou and Leo are feuding about the fate of the restaurant.
After the Chaos’ extravagant Christmas party, attended mostly by Haven’s Chinese community, Leo is found dead in the restaurant’s freezer. The police suspect foul play, and Dagou is eventually charged with murder, although others, including James and Ming, have motives in the crime.
As in Dostoyevsky’s novel, there is a trial in The Family Chao, and various family secrets come to light, but Chang uses the framework of the Russian novel to touch not only on family dynamics but also on questions of community, assimilation and prejudice. While the first half of the novel focuses on the Chao family and Haven’s small Chinese population, the second half shows what happens when that community becomes the subject of scrutiny by neighbors and indeed the wider world, as the case against Dagou is fraught with anti-Asian bias and stereotypes.
Like in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Chang looks backward to move forward, borrowing the storyline of a revered classic to explore something brand new about the American dream. Funny, thought-provoking and paced like a thriller, The Family Chao radically redefines the immigrant novel while balancing entertainment and delight.