World and Town, by Gish Jen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).
"Hattie Kong -- the spirited offspring of a descendant of Confucius and an American missionary to China -- has, in her fiftieth year, lost both her husband and her best friend to cancer. It is an utterly devastating loss, of course, and also heartbreakingly absurd: a little, she thinks, 'like having twins. She got to book the same church with the same pianist for both funerals and did think she should have gotten some sort of twofer from the crematorium.'
"But now, two years later, it is time for Hattie to start over. She moves to the town of Riverlake, where she is soon joined by an immigrant Cambodian family on the run from their inner-city troubles, as well as -- quite unexpectedly -- by a just-retired neuroscientist ex-lover named Carter Hatch. All of them are, like Hattie, looking for a new start in a town that might once have represented the rock-solid base of American life but that is itself challenged, in 2001, by cell-phone towers and chain stores, struggling family farms and fundamentalist Christians.
"What Hattie makes of this situation is at the center of a novel that asks deep and absorbing questions about religion, home, America, what neighbors are, what love is, and, in the largest sense, what 'worlds' are we make of the world.
"Moving, humorous, compassionate, and expansive, World and Town is as rich in character as it is brilliantly evocative of its time and place. This is a truly masterful novel -- enthralling, essential, and satisfying."
"It's the bai shu you'd notice most -- the thousand-year-old cypresses -- some of them upright, some of them leaning."
I've gotten backlogged again (gee, why on earth would it be hard to keep up with a list no one reads?) but this one was pretty good. How does Hattie make a life and find meaning for herself with her husband and best friend gone? How do her new neighbors, Chhung and Sophy and the rest of their family, Cambodian immigrants fleeing the trouble their kids tend to get into in the big city, build their own lives and hold on to some semblance of family when absolutely nothing in this new world makes sense? More a character study (not only of the people but the town in the story) but still pretty satisfying for that -- enough so that I'm looking forward to seeking out other Gish Jen novels in the future.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.