The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang
I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks so much to the publisher for granting me the opportunity to read this in advance.
Charles Wang moved to America from China with nothing. And with nothing but a brain made for success, and just a little bit of knowledge about manure, he built himself a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire. He has three children: Saina is a New York-based artist who’s juggling her love life. Andrew’s in university and is aspiring to be a stand-up comedian, and Grace is still in high school, but her sense of style and fashion blog dominate her life more than academics ever could. When the financial crisis comes rolling into town, Charles’s reluctance to listen to his financial advisors proves to be his downfall; in a blink of an eye, Charles loses everything: his house, his estates, his companies, even his car. In an effort to gather what’s remaining of his pride, he decides to take his family back to China where his ancestral lands are surely awaiting his return. And so begins a road trip from Los Angeles to New York, in a beat-up car with a family contained inside that has no idea what’s in store for them.
You know sometimes you read a synopsis, and you are sure that you need the book in your life? The Wangs vs. the World was that book for me. It sounded like a hilarious, light-hearted read revolving around the sheer entertainment of the riches-to-rags trope, with a heart-warming tale about the importance of family at its core. I think that was my problem with this book: I went into it with pre-conceived notions about what I would receive. And while it did deliver on some of these fronts, the overall experience was severely underwhelming. For starters, this is not a riches-to-rags novel. I wanted to see these rich, spoiled kids try to navigate a world where you’re not handed everything on a silver platter. I wanted to see them struggle with their new lifestyle, and we didn’t get any of that. If it had even been a little bit of the book, I might have enjoyed it more instead of just enjoying one scene here, another over there.
The book promises some laughs, and you get them. Chang writes with snark. Her language is often crude, but never gratuitously so. She has a talent when it comes to hooks. This book starts off by clearly establishing Chang’s voice- just the right amount of vulgar, just the right amount of intelligent snark. Case and point: “America was the worst part of it because America, that fickle bitch, used to love Charles Wang.” (Please note that this is quoted from an ARC, and might not be in the final product.)
But despite having a strong, intelligent voice, and despite its promising synopsis, this novel fell flat. I suspect that has something to do with the characters. I won’t say that they were one-dimensional or flat, because that is not true. In fact, they felt quite like real people- people that I interact with almost every day. But I just didn’t like them, and I don’t think that was the intention here. I didn’t care about their passions, or their motivations in life. I didn’t relate to them, and so I wasn’t immersed in the experience. Watching characters’ lives unfold in front of your eyes while you’re stuck behind a thick wall perforated with holes- that’s what this book felt like. You know the people on the other side are real, and you know most of what is going on, but you just can’t get to them. Ultimately, there are better things in life than looking into these people’s lives, so looking at them becomes a chore rather than an enjoyment. Which is how I felt by the 50% mark of the book- I was only reading to get to the end, rather than reading to find out what happened next.
With characters out of the way, let’s talk about the plot. There was none. If you were to ask me what this book was about, I would not be able to tell you anything apart from what I just stated above as the synopsis. Most of that happens within the first 25% of the novel, and after that mark, it’s a lot of introspection on the characters’ parts, a lot of dialogue, a lot of flashbacks that don’t seem to contribute anything to the story, but are rather used as devices to flesh out the characters. You can argue that there was a climax, but it can hardly be called that. And despite there being several different storylines in play, I can’t really say that I was invested in even one of them.
However, I can appreciate The Wangs. vs the World for its thematic material. I enjoyed looking at the Wangs’s family dynamics; I have grown so accustomed to reading about broken, fractured families in American literature, and I have never related to that. It was refreshing to see family dynamics that I could see myself in: overbearing parents who ultimately love you more than anything else in the world, close relationships with siblings, the realization that home is where your family is. That’s not something that I see too often in the books that I read, so it was much-needed. Moreover, Jade Chang explores things like micro aggressions, the myth of the model minority, racial stereotypes, etc. It so aptly depicts the love-hate relationship many of us have with America. And not only that, but these themes were seamlessly integrated into the novel without ever seeming in-your-face. What did seem in-your-face was the unapologetic use of an untranslated foreign language, which I saw many complaints about on the Goodreads page, but I don’t complain. I felt it was done intentionally- maybe even making a statement, that I fully admired. Sure, it was a little alarming to be missing the exact meaning of some parts of the text, but that’s okay. No writer should have to accommodate a reader who is reading a galley on a digital device, but is feeling too entitled to look up the translations of a few words.
Ultimately, I would recommend this book to anyone who is mainly concerned with writing style and a compelling voice, rather than the plot. If you are someone who looks at themes before anything else in a novel, this is for you. And if you are a person who can enjoy a book without necessarily feeling anything towards the characters, you will be fine. In other words, this book has a lot going for it – it just wasn’t for me.
The Wangs vs. The World releases on October 4th.