Excerpted from The Love Wife by Gish Jen. Copyright © 2004 by Gish Jen. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Gish Jen is the author of three previous novels and a book of stories. Her honors include the Lannan Literary Award for fiction and the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A Conversation with Gish Jen
Q: The Love Wife is your third novel. How might this book surprise readers of your previous novels, Typical American and Mona in the Promised Land? What surprised you?
A: The Love Wife is not about the Chang family, for one thing. Also this book is, I hate to say more middle-aged, but that's probably the truth. I've lived through more, and it shows.
At the same time, what really surprised me about The Love Wife was, paradoxically, how young I felt, writing it. In my non-writing life, I felt tired and stressed and a shadow of my younger self in most every respect. In my writing life, though, all of that seemed to fall away: This novel wrote itself and wrote itself as if it did not realize its author got no sleep and no exercise and could barely remember what year it was. I could not have been more amazed and grateful.
Q: The novel is told in the different voices of the Wong family. Why did you decide to write the novel in this form?
A: The novel came to me this way–as if told by the various Wongs at a very long family therapy session, only without the therapist, and with license, it seems, to soliloquize. I don't exactly know why this happened. In life I rarely witness stories unfolding in the way they conventionally do in fiction. I mostly hear what's happened to so-and-so over coffee, or on a walk. A recounted story has perhaps come to seem more "real" to me than a recreated story, rich with dynamics I recognize, and full of the information I would seek from a friend.
Other times I think that something about the complexities of our time makes me want to hear every voice I can hear. Having grown up with immigrant parents, I have always heard many voices, and understood many points of view–so many that for most of my writing career I have been concerned with trying to make out what in that chorus might be my own voice. More recently, though, I’ve finally become confident that my voice will never leave me, and I seem to want to absent myself, that I might inhabit others. In truth, I am not wholly absent from this book, and back when I was "finding my voice," I never lost sight of other points of view. But I strike a different balance in The Love Wife than I did in my earlier works.
Q: Was there a particular image or idea that inspired you as you began writing this novel?
A: I have two biracial children, the older of whom has straight black hair like mine, and is usually “read” as Asian American, the younger of whom has fine light hair, and is usually “read” as Caucasian. From the time she was born, people have looked at my daughter and asked if she was mine, which has been, for me, both a pain and a gift. Philip Roth has written about writers needing "amiable irritants" to fuel them; I have had no shortage in this regard, and at the time I began this book, my supply was particularly abundant. This was thanks to the beautiful, blond, 6-foot-2-inch basketball-playing German au pair we had then–not that she was herself in any way distressing (aside from being a dead ringer for Julia Roberts, that is). However, she was–to our mutual dismay–often taken for my daughter's mother, and I, sometimes, for my daughter's nanny. This was food for thought.
In my novel, of course, the racial breakdown of the family is completely different. And the Wong family is not my family. But the questions raised by my real life experience–questions about what a "real" family is, and about what’s “natural,” and about what choice we have in these matters–do inform the book.
Q: Carnegie Wong (Chinese-American) and Janie “Blondie” Wong (WASP-American) adopt their first daughter when she is abandoned at a local church. Nearly seven years later, they adopt a second daughter, from China. And eventually they are surprised with the birth of their biological son. A neighbor of the Wongs calls them “the new American family.” Do you agree with this assessment, and how did that affect your writing?
A: I thought of Tiger Woods a lot as I wrote The Love Wife; he seemed a cousin of the Wongs, and like them, the tip of a very large iceberg. For we are seeing more and more families that fall outside of the Dick and Jane mold these days–mixed race families, blended families, adopted families, and so on–as is very much in keeping with the idea of America. How very natural it is, after all, that an invented nation based on shared ideals rather than on blood and inheritance should be full of families brought together on a similar principle–by choice rather than by circumstance and biology. And yet, for all of its naturalness, how challenging this new phase of the American experiment, too.
Q: When Lan arrives from China to help the Wongs with child care, alliances begin to form within the family. (Who is most like whom? Who belongs to whom?) Do you think this is a typical response to a new nanny? Is it a matter of “culture clash”? Do you think it might have more to do with the ages of the Wong daughters (pre-teen and teen)?
A: I think that, just as toddlers of a certain age simply must climb every stairway possible, preteens and teens are driven to seek out whatever it is they need developmentally. If a nanny is of use to their project, she will be enlisted. And of course, different nannies will respond differently to this. Lan–far from home, uncertain of her relationship to the family and to America–needs the children and their love; family is important to her. At the same time, what she means by “family” is not always what the Wongs mean; so yes, there is culture clash.
Q: Can you tell us about your choice to have Mama Wong suffer from Alzheimer’s? The condition seems to precipitate a change of identity, or at least a shift in family roles.
A: I am, like many people, horrified by the cruelty of Alzheimer’s, of which my mother-in-law died some years ago. I wrote about it partly because I needed to write about it and partly because it brings to the surface a great fear shared by Carnegie and Blondie–a fear, not so much of loss of life, as loss of identity. Carnegie, for example, has spent most of his life rebelling against Mama Wong and her Chinese ideas. But the more she forgets, the more he strives, belatedly, to remember, record, recover, revive. The irony and vanity of this is not lost on him, and yet he cannot help himself. The anxiety precipitated by Mama Wong’s Alzheimer’s becomes a preoccupation with ethnic identity, and this, in turn, has repercussions in the novel as in the world today.
Q: Though the Wongs are grappling, like any family, with serious matters, their lives are full of comedy. (For instance, they have a goat–a goat!–in their suburban backyard.) How do you manage, as a writer, to make your characters’ lives so funny even as awful things happen to them?
A: I do not manage to make them funny–they simply turn funny, usually at the most inappropriate times.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. At the beginning of the novel, Blondie says, “At least I had my family. Every happy family has its innocence. I suppose, looking back, this was ours” [p. 4]. Is her belief in the sanctity of the family shared by the others? In what ways does her upbringing and her position within the Bailey family as “the throwback, a plain Jane who seemed to have no part in certain family games” [p. 70] influence her point of view?
2. How does Mama Wong’s Alzheimer’s affect Carnegie’s feelings about her? In what ways do his reactions offer insights not only into her character but into Carnegie’s as well? Compare his feelings and the way he expresses them with Blondie’s blunter observations about her mother-in-law. Are the differences based purely on their relationship to Mama Wong and her treatment of each of them? How does Jen capture the poignancy, the frustration, and even the humor of dealing with an Alzheimer’s patient?
3. Several decades separate the arrivals of Mama Wong and Lan in America. What insights do their backgrounds provide into the position of women in Chinese society both before and after the Communist takeover? Using Carnegie’s retelling of Mama Wong’s story [p. 30] and Lan’s thoughts as she settles into the household [pp. 39—49] and her description of her life in China [p. 95—102] as a starting point, discuss the ways in which their expectations and their experiences as immigrants differ and what they have in common. What do their comments about life in America bring to light about the changes in this country during that same period?
4. When Mama Wong dies, Carnegie says, “What a large word, ‘mother’; how puny its incorporation. Like the words ‘her family,’ meaning me. It was at times like this that I missed having a father, but not only for myself. I missed my mother having a husband.” [pp. 177—78]. How does this reflection encapsulate Carnegie’s state of mind and his emotional awakening? What impact do his memories of childhood, his mother’s memorabilia, and the discovery of the existence of the family book [pp. 189—193] have on his relationship with Blondie? How does Jen make these changes apparent?
5. Lizzy is in many ways a typical teenager trying to establish her own identity. To what extent does her image of herself as “mixed-up soup du jour” [p. 8] help to explain her almost immediate attachment to Lan? Does Lan take advantage of Lizzy’s confusion in an unfair or calculated way?
6. What does Wendy’s perspective add to our understanding of the family dynamics? What particular passages or incidents show that she, as Lan tells her, “See not only with your eyes but with your heart” [p. 90]? What effect does the fact that she is from China and her origins are clear have on the way she is treated by others and on her sense of identity?
7. Blondie asks herself, “Were we adopting this child [Wendy] for her good or for ours?” [p. 121] What does this imply about parenthood? Is it as relevant to the decision to have a child of one’s own as it is to adopting a child?
8. What is the significance of Blondie’s assertion, “I had always drawn strength from the fact that my hair next to Lizzy’s should be a picture that challenged the heart. Now I drew on it purposefully, the way other women drew on the knowledge that they were intelligent or thin. I had had the heart to take these children in, after all. Had I not loved them deeply and well, as if they were from the beginning my own?” [p. 133] Does her description of Bailey’s birth [p. 156] cast a different light on her feelings?
9. Is Blondie’s uneasiness about Lan’s claims on the children’s affections unusual? What distinguishes Lan’s role in the household from the usual interactions between a family and the people who care for their children? How do Lan’s personality and her judgments [p. 136, for example], as well as Carnegie’s and Blondie’s attitudes, contribute to the ambiguous nature of the relationship?
10. Does Lan’s presence in the household alter Blondie and Carnegie’s marriage in a fundamental way, or does it simply throw into relief differences that existed all along? To what extent is Carnegie’s attraction to Lan [pp. 142—44] attributable to misgivings about his marriage? Is the unraveling of the Wongs’ marriage inevitable, or does it confirm Blondie’s suspicion that Mama Wong “would send us, from her grave, the wife [Carnegie] should have married” [p. 195]?
11. What personal ambitions does Lan bring to the United States? Is her drive and desire to make the most of herself admirable or opportunistic and self-serving? How complicit is she in alienating Blondie from the family? What messages does she convey in the lessons she gives the girls in Chinese language and culture [pp. 203, 215—16, for example]? What do her involvement with Shang [pp. 285—309] and her marriage to Jeb Su reveal about Lan’s priorities?
12. Throughout the novel, Blondie and Gabriela exchange e-mails [pp. 131, 141, 202, 218—19]. What insight do these provide that is missing from Blondie’s longer, more detailed accounts of events? What does this friendship provide Blondie that is lacking in her relationship with Carnegie and with her siblings and father?
13. Why does Blondie’s effort to reclaim her family by becoming a stay-at-home mom ultimately fail? Beyond the practical implications, what is the importance of her decision to move out of the house?
14. The book ends on an ambivalent note. Why are the final words Wendy’s, and how do they relate to the themes of the novel?
15. Each character presents a personal chronicle of the events in their lives, sometimes commenting on or correcting the perceptions of the others. How would you describe the tone of each character’s commentary? For example, what qualities do Carnegie’s portrait of Blondie [pp. 20—21] and his “selected preconceptions, wholly inexcusable” about Lan [p. 12] have in common?
16. How do the juxtaposition of viewpoints and the mixture of tones affect the way the story unfolds and your reactions to the individual characters? Which one, if any, dominates the narrative? Does a particular character stand out as the emotional center of the novel? How might a reader’s own experience, gender, or background influence their sympathies for the various characters?
17. Gish Jen’s previous books–Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, and Who’s Irish?–established her as a funny and incisive portrayer of the way people of various backgrounds, cultures, and ambitions search for a place for themselves in America. How does The Love Wife extend and add twists to the notion of America as a nation of immigrants? Has the need to assimilate become less important to recent immigrants than it was to past generations or has assimilation become redefined?