Light Skin Gone to Waste, Toni Ann Johnson’s sharply observed linked story collection, follows the lives of psychologist Phil Arrington, his second wife, Velma, and their young daughter, Maddie, as they move from the Bronx to suburban Monroe, New York, in the early 1960s. Educated, sophisticated and striving for something different, the Arringtons are also Black and thus do not receive a warm welcome from their new white neighbors.
As the Arringtons settle in, Phil starts his own practice and Velma opens an antique store in a neighboring town. They join the country club where Phil can play tennis. Though Velma struggles to make friends, it’s Maddie who bears the brunt of the family’s social isolation. She’s one of the only Black children in the neighborhood and at school. In the stories “Claiming Tobias” and “Better,” she endures daily microaggressions regarding her skin color, hair and, as she gets older, body.
In the terrifying “Lucky,” the family travels to West Africa, where Maddie’s parents, eager to experience the nightlife in Dakar, Senegal, leave their young daughter in an unsafe situation with a male babysitter. As Maddie grows up, her father’s infidelities become bolder and her mother’s moods more inconstant, leaving both parents infuriatingly incapable of noticing their daughter’s misery. “The Way We Fell Out of Touch” and “Wings Made of Rocks” offer insights into the adults’ behavior without exonerating them. By the penultimate story, “Make a Space,” readers will be rooting for the teenage Maddie to find a way out of her childhood home.
If Maddie is traumatized by the racism she experiences in small-town New York, she is equally hurt by her parents’ inability to protect her or even, at times, to fully see her. Johnson’s deft handling of generational trauma, colorism and class—along with just the right amount of 1960s and ’70s cultural touchstones, from Tab soda to the Stillman diet to Barry Manilow—makes Light Skin Gone to Waste an engrossing, even groundbreaking read.
Toni Ann Johnson’s deft handling of generational trauma, colorism and class makes Light Skin Gone to Waste an engrossing, even groundbreaking read.
Friendships made in childhood have an intensity like no others, as they’re often rooted in immediate and sometimes inexplicable feelings of connection. This kind of deep relationship is the subject of Yiyun Li’s novel The Book of Goose. Not since Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend has a novel so deftly probed the magical and sometimes destructive friendships that can occur between two girls.
Fabienne and Agnes grew up together in the countryside of postwar France. Memories of those days are reignited when Agnes, now married and living in the United States, hears from her mother that Fabienne has died in childbirth.
As girls, they played together endlessly, with the dominant Fabienne always taking charge. When Fabienne suggests that they write a book together, Agnes complies, but it’s not a true collaboration: Fabienne dictates the story to the more docile Agnes, who also has the better penmanship. Their book is a collection of frankly told stories about the harshness of country life, and it attracts the attention of the village postmaster. Interest spreads as far as Paris, where the book is published solely under Agnes’ name, and the young author becomes a minor celebrity. Agnes is then sent to finishing school in London, where she falls under the tutelage of the controlling Mrs. Townsend.
Now, years later, Fabienne’s death offers Agnes the opportunity to come to terms with the life she created for herself, so far away from Fabienne’s calculations and Mrs. Townsend’s grandiose expectations.
Told by Agnes in brief, succinct chapters, The Book of Goose is an elegant and disturbing novel about exploitation and acquiescence, notoriety and obscurity, and whether you choose your life or are chosen by it. Through her characters, Li studies the sway of manipulation, like the power-shifting game of rock-paper-scissors—a motif which frequently pops up throughout the novel. And though Agnes never stops longing for the friend whose brilliance provided her life with a sense of wholeness, the reader might be excused for believing that it was Agnes’ game to win all along.
Not since Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend has a novel so deftly probed the magical and sometimes destructive friendships that can occur between two girls.
Pakistani British writer Kamila Shamsie is an adept chronicler of how politics impact families in both England and Pakistan. In 2013, she was recognized as one of Granta‘s “20 best young British writers,” and her most recent novel, Home Fire, won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her eighth book, Best of Friends, delves into how relationships formed in childhood affect our adult selves, and speculates about whether even the most cherished friendships could have an expiration date.
It’s 1988 in Karachi, Pakistan, and teenagers Zahra and Maryam have been best friends since elementary school. Zahra is the studious daughter of a schoolteacher and a cricket commentator, and she dreams of a world beyond Karachi. Maryam is the privileged child of a wealthy family that splits its time between England and Pakistan, and she hopes to inherit her family’s lucrative leather-goods business.
Adolescence brings changing bodies and a new interest in boys. The girls’ growing sense of freedom is compounded by the election of Benazir Bhutto, whose unexpected win brings hope for a more equitable future for all Pakistanis. But when a ride home from a party with their friend Hammad goes horribly wrong, Maryam and Zahra face the limits of their freedom—as well as the ways their differing upbringings shape their reactions to trauma.
Decades later, both friends have found considerable success in London, where Zahra is a famous lawyer turned political advocate for refugees, and Maryam is a venture capitalist funding the development of facial-recognition software. They are still close, yet certain subjects remain off-limits. When Hammad comes to London, the two women argue over how to handle the situation, and their conflicting approaches put their lifelong friendship at risk.
Shamsie excels at balancing the personal and the political, and she artfully reconstructs the tense political environment of 1980s Pakistan and the rise of the surveillance state in 2019 London to provide ample opportunities for Maryam and Zahra to find themselves on opposite sides of such issues as privacy, privilege and refugee rights. For any reader who finds themselves at odds with an old friend, Best of Friends rings true in its honest, unvarnished portrayal of friendship strained by politics and ideology.
Kamila Shamsie's eighth novel speculates about whether even the most cherished friendships could have an expiration date.
Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet hit at the right moment; her 2020 novel about the tragic death of William Shakespeare’s son from the bubonic plague made for compelling reading as many of us quarantined during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her next novel, The Marriage Portrait, is a vivid depiction of the harsh manners and rigid expectations for women within ducal courts in 16th-century Italy.
The Marriage Portrait is based on the life of Lucrezia de’Medici, born into one of Italy’s most illustrious families. With parents eager to strengthen ties to other noble Italian houses, Lucrezia’s older sister Maria is betrothed to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. When Maria dies of an unspecified illness just days before the wedding, 15-year-old Lucrezia is offered in her place. Less than a year later, Lucrezia is dead, probably from tuberculosis—but at the time, it was alleged that she was murdered by her husband. This long-lasting rumor became the basis of Robert Browning’s dramatic 1842 poem “My Last Duchess,” which begins, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive.”
As imagined by O’Farrell, Lucrezia is a free spirit and artist, attuned to the natural world and accepted, if not warmly embraced, by her large Florentine family. Once married, she is out of her league in the tense, gossipy Ferrara household, where she is frightened by her husband’s mercurial moods and his sisters’ cagey secrets. Lucrezia quickly realizes that the longer it takes her to produce an heir, the more danger she is in. As she sits for a formal marriage portrait and cautiously makes a connection with the artist’s apprentice, she remains not only on the periphery of the court but also fearful for her life.
O’Farrell is a marvelous stylist, and The Marriage Portrait is full of the same kinds of intense details that made Hamnet come alive. Her characters are captivating and believable, and the landscape of Renaissance Italy is a veritable gift to the senses, so powerfully does O’Farrell evoke the sights, sounds and smells of forest, castle and barnyard.
From Lucrezia’s early encounters with a tiger in her father’s menagerie to her final days in a wooded fortress, The Marriage Portrait will please readers who relish good historical fiction as well as anyone looking to the past to better understand the present.
Maggie O'Farrell is a marvelous stylist, and The Marriage Portrait is full of the same kinds of intense details that made Hamnet come alive.
In Adam Langer’s sixth novel, The Diary of Anne Frank acts as the backdrop to a group of student actors’ formative experiences, which are carried forward into the cultural and political conflicts of the early 21st century.
Cyclorama begins at a magnet high school in the northern suburbs of Chicago in 1982. Tyrus Densmore, an imperious and wildly inappropriate director of the school’s drama program, is holding auditions for a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. When the role of Peter Van Daan goes to inexperienced underclassman Franklin Light instead of seasoned senior Declan Spengler, it sets off a series of cataclysmic events, including a sexual assault, among the young cast.
Tyrus is the kind of teacher who exploits his students’ fears and insecurities, especially those who are undersupervised or from single-parent families. When Franklin goes to Tyrus’ home for a costume fitting, two other students, Robert Rubicoff and Eileen Muldoon, witness Tyrus commit what looks like nonconsensual sexual actions. Robert and Eileen plan to expose Tyrus on the night of the cast party, but their plot not only fails to entrap their teacher but also puts several other students in grave jeopardy.
Thirty years later, on the eve of the 2016 election, Tyrus is still teaching. His former students may no longer live in his vicinity, but many of them still feel, decades later, that their lives were shaped by his abuse. When someone comes forward with an allegation that dates back to the early 1980s, the consequences ripple through the entire Anne Frank cast in unexpected ways.
Cyclorama is an often funny, slightly messy but mostly deeply moving novel about the ways unresolved trauma affects the life choices we make, including the paths we take in our careers, the partners we choose and the politics we support. It’s also a novel about how the bonds of friendship can transcend adolescent vulnerabilities and motivate us to work for change. Langer treats these teenage upheavals with a light hand, and though the novel occasionally takes some shortcuts in character development, the results are generous to its flawed cast.
In theater, a cyclorama is a cylindrical curtain or wall that’s positioned to form a panoramic background for the staged action. Like such a device, Langer’s novel reveals how the past echoes through the present and continues to shape our futures.
A theatrical cyclorama is a cylindrical curtain or wall that’s positioned to form a panoramic background for the staged action. Like such a device, Adam Langer’s novel reveals how the past echoes through the present and continues to shape our futures.
Leyna Krow’s 2017 book of short stories, I’m Fine, but You Appear to Be Sinking, is an eccentric mashup, complete with giant squid and space travels, told with a down-to-earth candor. Krow brings that same practical empathy and eye for the odd to her debut novel, Fire Season, a picaresque story of three schemers whose paths cross in 19th-century Spokane just as the Washington Territory is striving for statehood.
For sad sack bank manager Barton Heydale, the 1889 fire that devastates Spokane is a blessing in disguise. Paranoid and unpopular, Barton is on the verge of taking his own life when he realizes that, because of the disaster, the citizens of Spokane will be flocking to the bank for loans to rebuild. He takes advantage of their desperation by charging exorbitant interest rates and hiding the extra money in his house.
Barton also opens his home to Roslyn Beck, an alcoholic sex worker, after her residential hotel burns down. Unable to continue working without a room to call her own and determined to control her addiction, Roslyn is savvy enough to see through Barton’s intentions and also nurse her hidden talent: levitation. Barton and Roslyn must face the limits of their manipulative powers when they meet Quake Auchenbaucher, a con artist who’s impersonating a government fire inspector. Quake realizes that with statehood on the horizon, his days as a grifter might be numbered.
Within this darkly whimsical reimagining of the American West, Krow places microvignettes—miniature tales of magic, trickery and deception—in and around the novel’s main action. She plays fast and loose with the tropes of the frontier novel, leaning in to the notion of the unsettled West as a place where people could reinvent themselves. In Fire Season, con artists risk getting caught in their own traps, and the “fallen woman” lacks the proverbial heart of gold, but she emerges as the one character who can remake herself enough times to make it through.
Leyna Krow plays fast and loose with the tropes of the frontier novel, leaning in to the notion of the unsettled West as a place where people could reinvent themselves.
Following her gorgeous story collection, the National Book Award finalist Sabrina & Corina, Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s first novel opens with a scene of fairy-tale resonance: An abandoned infant of unknown parentage is taken in and raised by a village elder. From that moment on, Woman of Light retains a mythic quality while following the stories of five generations of an Indigenous North American family, from their origins, border crossings, accomplishments and traumas to their descendants’ confrontation and acceptance of their family history.
In 1930s Denver, young Luz Lopez is a launderer who was taught to read tea leaves by her mother. Luz’s brother, Diego, is a snake charmer who works in a factory, and together they live with their aunt Marie Josie. But after Diego is attacked for dating a white woman, he must leave town. Soon after, the visions that have haunted Luz since her childhood return in full force, spelling out the harsh experiences of her ancestors as they navigated the lands between Mexico and Colorado.
Though Luz’s visions drag her back in time to stories from her family’s past, Woman of Light is grounded in Luz’s present. We are immersed in the closeness of the Lopez family, the joyful plans for cousin Lizette’s wedding and Luz’s growing intimacy with childhood friend David Tikas, son of the neighborhood grocer. David hires Luz to be the secretary of his new law office, and the young lawyer’s commitment to progressive causes offers Luz a framework to better understand the racial hostilities and anti-labor movement that plague her community.
Denver plays a starring role in Woman of Light, from the church-sponsored carnivals to the Greek market and the Opportunity School where Luz takes typing classes. The setting provides a rich, multicultural perspective of the American West, and while Fajardo-Anstine underscores the systemic racism in U.S. history (the threat of the Klu Klux Klan is ever present), she never does so at the expense of her characters’ resilience and hope.
Woman of Light is truly absorbing as it chronicles one woman’s journey to claim her own life in the land occupied by her family for generations.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut novel retains a mythic quality while following a woman's journey to claim her own life in the land occupied by her family for generations.
More than 10 years ago, Jennifer Egan published A Visit From the Goon Squad, her groundbreaking novel of 13 interrelated stories in which she pushed style and theme to the limits of fiction’s boundaries. Not quite a sequel but connected to that earlier novel by several of the same characters, The Candy House remains true to Egan’s curiosity about technology and her commitment to experimenting with unusual narrative structures.
“Goon Squad never felt like a book I exactly finished,” Egan says with an easy laugh, speaking via Zoom. It’s a sunny January morning, and she sits in a comfortable chair beside a window that overlooks her wintry Brooklyn street. “The question was not whether I would keep writing about those people—because I always knew I would—but could I find a way to make a book viable on its own terms and not just an echo?”
One of the characters who returns in (and in a way, bookends) The Candy House is Bix Bouton, Sasha’s college classmate in Goon Squad who now takes center stage as a hugely innovative and wildly successful media magnate. Bix’s social media company, Mandala, developed the technological innovations Own Your Unconscious, which allows users to store their memories on a cubelike device, and Collective Consciousness, which allows the sharing of those memories to a database, where they can be accessed by anyone.
“Bix has a tiny role in Goon Squad, but I knew when I wrote [his] chapter that he would go on to invent something that would change social media,” says the author. “I also knew that Mindy, who was on safari in Goon Squad, would become a famous sociologist, and oddly, I knew that Susan, the wife of Ted Hollander, would have a relationship with one of her son’s friends.”
The challenge, Egan explains, was determining how to fold these inevitable plot points into the narrative styles she most wanted to use. “I was waiting for those to coalesce and feel alive, which is the only way I can seem to get to writing anything successfully. It’s trial and error. I’m like a windup toy. I bump and I turn and bump and turn again, and I keep going until I find a pathway.”
“Fiction comes the closest to giving us a sense of the play of another human mind, the intimacy of another consciousness. That is the secret weapon of fiction.”
It is impossible to read The Candy House and not marvel at Egan’s skill, from the range of techniques and shifting points of view used throughout the novel’s 14 chapters, to the skillful incorporation of to-the-minute tweets and emails. Surely Egan had a wall of Post-its to keep the characters straight. “Well, I am a Post-its maniac,” she concedes good-naturedly, “but seriously, I think there is something that has to flow in a book like Candy House, where there’s a back and forth between finding material that feels alive and some of these approaches that I wanted to try.”
The technologies in The Candy House came to the author “inductively,” not as inventions to intentionally explore in a novel. “We are so used to being able to find someone on social media, and yet there are so many people that we don’t have quite enough points of reference to find, and that sort of unknowability makes them more tantalizing,” she says. “What would be the vehicle for finding them? How could I make that even possible? Suppose there was a machine that could do that?”
Bix’s consciousness-sharing product certainly doesn’t seem a far cry from our present reality, in which people eagerly offer their DNA to be evaluated and uploaded to genealogical databases. At the heart of The Candy House is the seduction of life online; even as we acknowledge the risk of sharing personal details, we’re lured in by the sense of knowledge offered by ingesting other people’s information. We run toward the danger, eager to gobble up all we can before the witch comes out and spoils it for us.
“I am almost always curiosity- and desire-driven, and that underlies a lot of what I end up imagining,” Egan says. “Usually, if there is technology I invent, even as I know that there would be grave disadvantages, there’s something attractive to me.” One example of this double-edged sword is found in the chapter titled “What the Forest Remembers,” in which Charlie accesses her dying father’s memories of a life-changing trip to a redwood forest, but the viewing comes with devastating knowledge about the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and the roots of her own awkward relationship with her father.
As to be expected, Bix’s inventions spur the rise of an opposition. “Eluders” choose to exercise their right to be forgotten, and a company called Mondrian allows them to erase their digital footprints or, more disturbingly, create false avatars to conceal their true locations and identities. Bix’s son Greg, a would-be novelist who makes his living selling weed, is an eluder, and so is Lily, the daughter of Goon Squad’s morally compromised publicist Dolly. Lily is also a former spy whose brain has been infiltrated by a “weevil” that tracks and reports her every thought.
“Each new iteration of technology seems to bring about a kind of analogous unfolding of discoveries,” Egan says. “For example, there are huge advantages to the ease of DNA analysis, and yet once you’ve had your DNA analyzed, it’s part of a worldwide database. It’s no different [in the novel]. With every discovery, there’s a reaction to that discovery. In The Candy House, it’s the two organizations Mandala and Mondrian—one that offers access, the other the ability to disappear. As the technology unfolds, it becomes a dialectic between the lure of access with all that it brings, including the loss of privacy, and the counter to that is the will to vanish, a real-life wish to be unavailable.”
Egan is quick to point out that something already exists in our world that offers access to people’s inner thoughts in a manner similar to Mandala’s technology: fiction. “I realized as I was writing that this machine, which I created, can do what fiction already does,” she says. “The fun, voyeuristic nature of fiction lets us peek into people’s minds. I love the idea that, in a way, I was reifying the kind of advantages of fiction as a Silicon Valley device.”
In the chapter “Eureka Gold,” Greg makes this connection as well, as he realizes that writing a novel is an act of shared consciousness. This idea connects him to his father’s greatest creation. “I feel it’s what fiction can do that nothing else can do,” Egan says, “and it’s why it has remained relevant to the degree that it has. Nothing else suggests an inner life quite that way. Fiction comes the closest to giving us a sense of the play of another human mind, the intimacy of another consciousness. That is the secret weapon of fiction.”
“Fiction is about confronting and honoring the mystery at the heart of human experience, so I would never give the book a tidy ending.”
By the novel’s end, despite the myriad storylines and characters, The Candy House all comes together—though, fittingly, not without a few enticing threads left dangling.
“My job is to bind what I have in such a way that it really metabolizes into one creature,” Egan says, “but I’d never want to totally wrap things up. Fiction is about confronting and honoring the mystery at the heart of human experience, so I would never give the book a tidy ending. In the end, to me, the enormity of what I am trying to evoke is that using language to capture human experience and human consciousness is magic. More magic than any machine.”
And will we see these characters again? Will Greg become a novelist? Will Charlie find peace? What happens to Lily and the weevil in her brain?
“I’ve got things I know and things I haven’t done yet,” Egan admits with a smile. “I’m already concocting!”
Photo of Jennifer Egan by Pieter M. Van Hattem.
In her curiosity-driven novel The Candy House, Jennifer Egan returns to the unfinished business of her Pulitzer Prize winner, A Visit From the Goon Squad.
In The Candy House, Jennifer Egan revisits some of the characters from her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit From the Good Squad. But The Candy House is less a sequel than a continuation of themes, offering a bold imagining of the lures and drawbacks of technology through a lively assortment of narrative styles.
Bix Bouton, a minor character in Goon Squad, emerges in The Candy House as a staggeringly brilliant tech guru whose casual interest in animal consciousness leads to the creation of his social media company, Mandala. Bix’s groundbreaking product, Own Your Unconscious, allows users to externalize their consciousness to a cubelike device. Taking the concept a step further, his invention Collective Consciousness offers the option of uploading memories to an online database, where they can be shared. This hugely seductive innovation inspires a backlash movement, in which “eluders” wipe their digital footprints or even hide behind false avatars.
From Bix’s life-altering inventions, the novel spirals outward in subsequent chapters, tracking families and friends over decades, digging deeply into the emotional and psychological effects of their private memories being made public. The novel even takes a dystopian turn through the story of Lily, a former spy whose brain has been infiltrated by a government-implanted “weevil.” But for the most part, Egan keeps the novel moving through relatable territory, as universal access to personal memories proves, unsurprisingly, to be as disruptive as it is tantalizing.
Egan’s bold appropriation of narrative styles, like the use of first-person plural and chapters written in tweets and text messages, gives the novel a glittering, kaleidoscopic quality. But Egan’s empathetic interest in human behavior is what drives The Candy House, making it more than just a literary experiment. As Bix’s son Greg points out, you don’t need access to Collective Consciousness to fully experience another person’s memories, thoughts and perceptions; fiction can do the same thing.
A startling novel written by an author at the top of her game, The Candy House never loses sight of fiction’s superpowers.
There’s a saying you might have heard: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Fortunately, two authors—one veteran, the other new to fiction—have ignored this warning and written novels about classical music, and we readers are luckier for it.
The Great Passion by James Runcie, author of the acclaimed Grantchester Mysteries, is a beautiful coming-of-age novel set in 18th-century Germany. In 1726, 13-year-old Stefan Silbermann is mourning the death of his mother. His father makes arrangements for Stefan to attend a music school in Leipzig, an especially useful education for a boy whose family’s business is building and repairing church organs. At school, lonely Stefan is tormented by the other students, finding solace only in singing and in the presence of the demanding but empathic choir director, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Stefan’s heavenly singing voice and sensitivity endear him to Bach, who enlists Stefan as a soloist in many of his cantatas. But Stefan remains deeply unhappy, and when he runs away from the dorms, Bach invites him to live at the Bach family home. There, Stefan basks in the warmth of domestic life, assisting Bach’s children with chores and working as a copyist for the great composer.
When another tragedy strikes, this time in Bach’s family, Stefan is a firsthand witness to the way grief can be a catalyst for musical genius, watching and then performing in the work that will become one of Bach’s most celebrated compositions, “The Passion According to St Matthew.” Stefan’s exposure to Bach’s creativity, family and devotion to God is the restorative balm that the young man needs in order to move forward with his life.
On the other end of the spectrum is Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy, a fast-paced thriller about a young Black violinist and his search for a priceless instrument, set against the backdrop of systemic racism within the world of contemporary classical music.
Ray McMillian has a dream of becoming a concert violinist, and nothing will stand in his way: not his unsupportive mother and uncles, his disinterested teachers or the industry’s inherent racial bias. When Ray’s beloved grandmother gifts him with her grandfather’s violin, it brings him a step closer to his dream, and when the instrument is revealed to be an extremely rare and valuable Stradivarius, his star really begins to rise.
Ray is on the verge of attending the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow when the prized instrument is stolen and held for ransom. Suspects range from members of Ray’s own family, eager to claim the insurance money, to his musical rivals in Europe. Even the descendants of the family who once enslaved Ray’s great-great-grandfather are claiming the instrument belongs to them. As Ray travels the globe, not sure whom he can trust, music remains the only constant in his life, supporting him no matter the situation.
Despite their differences in literary styles, locations and eras, these novels are connected by more than just their musical themes. Resilience is a powerful presence in both stories, whether in the face of personal pain and grief or against the constant pressures of embedded prejudices. Music is the conduit through which two young men learn to overcome loss and fight against insurmountable odds, offering not only a reason to live but also a way to thrive.
Classical music is a powerful force in new novels from James Runcie and Brendan Slocumb, inspiring their heroes and illuminating the way forward.
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.
Funny, thought-provoking and paced like a thriller, The Family Chao radically redefines the immigrant novel while balancing entertainment and delight.
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