Tony Zhang has always been willing to do what is necessary in his pursuit of a better life. He left his fishing village in China, seeking education and opportunities in the big city of Dalian, and found love along the way. In the early 1990s, he and his wife, Kim, lived comfortably, supported by his successful engineering career and her medical practice. But they dreamed of more—a TV, a refrigerator, a house, possibilities—so they left China and their careers for New York City.
As Tony and Kim’s daughter, Tammy, grows up, she struggles to understand her father, whose expectations feel impossibly high. Tony calculates how quickly Tammy can graduate college and then law school. He wants her to have access to the level of wealth displayed in the Rosewood, the upscale co-op on the Upper West Side where Tony works as a door attendant. But Tammy doesn’t know why her father has invested so much in a future she isn’t sure she wants.
Oliver is a 26-year-old white attorney who lives in the Rosewood. Eager to be seen as a good guy, the kind of person who knows his door attendant’s name, Oliver strikes up a friendship with Tony. After a dramatic incident in which a man tries to steal a Rosewood tenant’s purse, Tony becomes a hero, and Oliver devotes even more attention to him, quickly intertwining himself with the Zhang family. Tammy becomes Oliver’s protégé, first taking piano lessons from him and eventually following in his professional footsteps.
In chapters that shift between Tony, Tammy and Oliver, charting their past and present motivations over the course of several decades, Paper Names explores how we’re shaped at the points where we intersect with others. While Tammy’s sections account for slightly less than a third of the book, her chapters are the only ones told from a first-person perspective, subtly communicating that the young woman’s life is the novel’s center. And although Tammy spends decades learning from both her father and Oliver, she retains blind spots about their lives—spaces where their stories move outside her view.
Debut novelist Susie Luo executes the jumps between her characters’ perspectives well, allowing the shifts to feel as natural as revisiting one’s own memories. This is a well-woven tale about the legacies that are passed down through generations, even when family members upend their lives in search of distance from one another.