Stories of culture clash are almost always interesting. Whenever you throw together a set of people from different backgrounds, with different customs and ideas, it’s nearly always fascinating to watch. That’s because, even when vastly differently people get along and like each other, there’s something volatile about the combination. There’s always something that needs to be worked out.
In Gish Jen’s novel The Love Wife, the problems that need to be worked out are latent conflicts within the Wong family – headed by Chinese-American Carnegie and his white wife, Janie. The two have a pair of adopted daughters – the teenaged Lizzy and grade-schooler Wendy – and a biological son, Bailey. Already, the racially mixed household is a bit uneasy. Wendy and Lizzy are both Asian American, but, while the family knows Wendy is Chinese, Lizzy’s lineage is less clear, causing the teen great angst. Also, Janie has always been at the mercy of Carnegie’s mother, the imperious Mama Wong. Mama Wong is a hardcore Chinese matriarch, who dubs her daughter-in-law Blondie (the name sticks, much to Blondie’s dismay).
When Mama Wong dies, her will requires a “relative” of hers from China to stay with the family. The new addition is Lan, middle-aged but still attractive, whose presence almost immediately causes a tip in the already delicate balance of the family. Blondie, convinced that Mama Wong is sending her husband a new wife from beyond the grave, is immediately suspicious and resentful. The two girls, meanwhile, take to Lan like a second mother, further sending Blondie into a spin.
Jen depicts the resulting culture clash using the trick of having each character (with the exception of deceased Mama Wong and baby Bailey) narrate different chapters and passages in the book. We see that every facet of this mixed family has its own concerns, flaws, fears and failings. The real triumph of the book, though, is that Lan, who in any other work would have been merely a catalyst, is given depth and complexity through the narration. She could have been merely a symbol; Jen makes her human.
Yet the book drags a bit toward the end, with its ultimate revelations being a bit less jarring than the should have been. Still, The Love Wife” is a competent, thought-provoking chronicle of family sent into a tailspin by culture clash.