A Review of
The Wangs Vs. The World:
Reviewed by Cara Meredith
I often wonder what it means to belong: to a people, to a place, to God.
Last Saturday morning, my four-year-old son and I walked down the hill to the farmer’s market. As per the usual, we picked out our fruits and vegetables for the week, and then headed to the giant bouncy house apparatus for a couple of slides and bounces. Climb up. Slide down. Repeat. After trying unsuccessfully to wrangle my boy from the place he would have stayed all day, I gave him the head’s up: this, this was his last slide.
“But Mama,” he shouted, tears filling his eyes, “I belong here!” Through play, through laughter and through friendship he’d found a place where heart met soul. He’d found a place of belonging.
This idea of belonging is also at the heart of Jade Chang’s debut novel, The Wangs Vs. the World. What does it mean to belong to family when every physical thing that held you together is taken away? What does it mean to belong to yourself – and to know who you really are – when you’ve lost it all? And what does it mean to belong to your country, when the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?
Charles Wang, the family patriarch, arrived in America with pennies to his name, but soon built a cosmetics empire through an unlikely ingredient all his ancestor’s own: cheaply manufactured urea. Soon, Charles married a beauty queen, fathered three children and moved into a mansion in the heart of Bel Air. Although tragedy struck early on (through the death of his wife and the children’s mother in a helicopter crash), the family continued to thrive effortlessly, a prosperous dynasty their empire.
Then the financial crisis of 2008 hit – and, as each one of us has a story to tell about that period of time, the Wangs, too, have a story all their own. Built on a foundation of quick-witted dialogue, humor and cultural acuity, Jade Chang creates a tale of one family who is forced to learn how to suit themselves to new circumstances.
They set out in a journey across country in the only vehicle that hasn’t yet been repossessed: a 1980 model, powder-blue Mercedes station wagon, previously sold to (and then taken back from) Ama, the Wang’s housekeeper and nanny, for one dollar. Like “a troupe of Chinese Okies fleeing a New Age Dust Bowl” (33), Charles, stepmom Barbra, son Andrew and youngest daughter Grace attempt the drive from California to upstate New York so they might move into oldest daughter Saina’s farmhouse.
But there’s a stripping away of outside facades, as can only happen on a road trip of this size, trapped in a metal box on wheels. And as this plundering happens, a story of belonging is then told through a quirky cast of characters.
First, Charles himself has to come to terms with his identity, as a Chinese immigrant and as a man whose failures are obvious. Because each chapter features a different narrator’s perspective, the reader is able get to know each of the characters intimately. So, what is he to make of a place that gave him everything, just to take everything away? And where – and to whom – does he belong now? To him, America has become the great deceptor. It’s the land of opportunities, of golden mountains, of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness (150), but the country he’s come to love doesn’t look quite so sparkly when the bank repossesses it all.
Meanwhile, Saina, a failed artist holed up in the Catskill Mountains, anxiously awaits her family’s arrival, as she searches for belonging through intimate relationships. While every character in the novel is entangled in his or her own love saga, Saina in particular finds herself desirous of true fidelity to another human. “Love was supposed to be a by-product of a life well lived, not the goal,” she mourns (200). Tangled between the love interests of Grayson, the cheating ex-fiancé, and Leo, whose gaze alone makes her die just a little bit inside, it’s the classic Good Guy/Bad Guy scenario. And because Chang delves so deeply into her character, it’s impossible, in the midst of cheering for Leo, to realize that Saina first has to come to terms with herself.
Likewise, younger siblings Andrew and Grace yearn to belong in the only way they know how: by finding their place in a highly dysfunctional but fiercely loyal family. Andrew, an aspiring comic, may want to make it on the big stage, but lacks an aggressive instinct to fight for what he truly wants. He’s a peacemaker at the heart of it, for he “…felt like Rodney King sometimes, arms outstretched, asking for everybody to just get along” (139). When he, a collegiate virgin, decides to shack up with an older, sex-obsessed debutante he meets in the South, the entire family can’t seem to function without him. Meanwhile, Grace, a senior in high school, feels like she’s in a dream; she searches for hidden television cameras and constantly wonders if the entire saga is one big joke. Even though the situation feels cursed, she, of all the characters, seems to cope with the financial loss – perhaps out of youthful ignorance, perhaps out of an earnest, homey desire to settle down with the family she can’t help but love.
Finally, stepmother Barbra (who most assuredly believes no one will associate her American name with the real “Babs” Streisand), journeys toward belonging in a country and with a family who’ve never fully accepted her into the fold. “She was the one,” she believes of herself, “who had made something out of nothing. She was the one who’d upended generations of poverty in one move. So what if she’d done it with a lucky marriage?” (223) Does her husband love her? Does the family even care that she’s along for the ride? Perhaps the most intriguing of Chang’s cast, it’s not until the end of the book that her story comes full circle, and the reader is gravitationally pulled toward her plight.
After all, belonging is at the core of human desire – so in creating an endearing cast of gorgeously flawed characters, I, as a reader, can’t help but seek to find my place in the novel and in the midst of my normal, messy, everyday world, too.
And that, I’d say, makes for a rather successful read.