With the whole country talking about identity politics, racism and cultural awareness, Peter Ho Davies’ provocative new novel could not be more timely. Told from the points of view of four different characters over a century and a half, The Fortunes documents the history of the Chinese in America beginning in the mid-1800s. The pattern of 19th-century immigration and current Chinese adoptions is comprised of first men, and then girls, without families. With this in mind, Davies re-envisions the genre of the multigenerational saga.
The novel’s artful structure allows for four distinct stories, three of which are drawn from historical sources. The son of a prostitute and a white man, or “ghost,” Ah Ling is sold off to a laundry in California. By 1860, he had become a personal assistant to a railroad baron, but then chose to work alongside his countrymen on the transcontinental railroad. The second story is told by Anna May Wong. Born in the United States, Wong was Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star, yet she repeatedly lost key roles to white actresses playing in yellowface. Four decades later, an unnamed friend of Vincent Chin’s remembers the night Chin was beaten to death outside a Detroit bar during the height of the import auto scare of the early 1980s. Finally, in the last section, Mike Smith, a biracial writer, and his Caucasian wife, Nola, travel to China to adopt a baby girl. In each of these stories, Davies’ characters wrestle with their Chinese identity and what it means to become an American.
The scope and research of The Fortunes is impressive, but what makes the novel memorable is the honesty of each narrative voice, whether it’s the loneliness of Ah Ling, the bitter wit of Anna May Wong, or the unease of Vincent’s friend as he sifts through his memories of that terrible night. But it is the utter intimacy and introspection of the final section, “Pearl,” that digs the deepest. Though it is the section told with the most humor, this is the one that will break your heart. Davies, whose previous novel, The Welsh Girl, was a nominee for the Man Booker Prize, has written a masterful, perceptive and very modern look at identity, migration and the intertwined histories of the United States and China.