Hattie Kong’s email inbox is full of desperate pleas from various relatives to please send back her parents’ bones to the family plot in Qufu, China. Because her American missionary mother and her Confucius-descended Chinese father found their final rest in Iowa, the remaining Kong family members are convinced that all manner of unfortunate events – from anorexia to useless boyfriends to even a four-wheel-drive vehicle getting stuck – are a direct result of her parents’ afterlife estrangement from their Kong ancestors, never mind that Hattie’s late mother is actually reposed in her hometown. “‘Hogwash,’” continues to be Hattie’s reply.
At 68, Hattie is mostly alone. Born and raised in China, she landed in the U.S. as a teenager and stayed. She recently lost her husband and best friend, one after the other; her one son lives in Hong Kong, while she lives with her dogs in upstate New York. She’s retired from her biology teaching job, she has a few friends whom she meets to walk and eat. She paints although not necessarily well.
When a Cambodian family arrives with a trailer – thanks to a local church group – just beyond her backyard, Hattie takes cookies and delivers their kitchen drawer (which only Hattie seemed to notice when it fell out during the move). Hattie’s rescue mission is just beginning. The traumatized parents and the older son are survivors of Cambodia’s Killing Fields; their American-born daughter Sophy has a troubled past all her own.
As Hattie adjusts her daily routines to accommodate her new neighbors, Hattie’s heart relives old challenges when her first love, Carter, appears in town. Suddenly her controlled, well-regulated life is anything but … and she must fight old friends, electronic intrusions, God Squad, and even her own ‘Hattie-is-batty’-doubts to somehow regain her crumbling balance.
In spite of moments of clever buoyancy, Gish Jen‘s fourth novel (six years after The Love Wife) seems much … well … heavier than her others. Hattie’s self-absorption, too often mixed with self-pity, becomes weighty baggage over the almost-400 pages. As I was plodding through the final chapters, my mother proudly, even gleefully announced (on the Fourth of July, of all days), that she had finally finished Jen’s debut, Typical American, with delighted enjoyment. Shockingly, that book is already two decades old … and I must admit, I found myself longing for those whimsical, exasperated, hysterical days of Jen’s ‘typical’ youth …