Hattie Kong—the spirited offspring of a descendant of Confucius and an American missionary to China—has, in her fiftieth year of living in the United States, lost both her husband and her best friend to cancer. It is an utterly devastating loss, 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” we make of the world.
Winner, 2011 Massachusetts Book Prize
Nominee, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
It’s a big subject, America, but Gish Jen once again provest an exemplary national pulse-taker – Toronto Star
What a pleasure to read this smart, warm novel from Gish Jen…Jen knows how to create thoughtful characters who can talk and think about complex issues without making us take notes – Ron Charles, Washington Post
In this thick, satisfying sprawl of a read… Jen gracefully introduces some of the great issues of our time: how the shock of 9/11 reverberated from city to town; how lost souls can cling meanly to fundamentalism; how it feels when a chain store bulldozes into a mom-and-pop community, or a family farm finally collapses – Entertainment Weekly
“Sharply funny and wisely compassionate, Jen’s richly stippled novel slyly questions every assumption about existence and meaning even as it celebrates generosity, friendship, and love.” – Donna Seaman, Booklist
I love it when women dare to take on the great themes of history and national identity. Gish Jen sets her novel in a small Vermont town, but extends her reach to the larger world when she writes about Hattie Kong and her new neighbors, a Cambodian family trying to start over after suffering from the traumas of war and the temptations of American city life…
I love the voices in this book–each compelling, each contributing to the layered story. I love Gish Jen’s sense of history as both personal and political, intimate and communal. The novel is powerful but also subtle and wise in its use of multiple points of view. It’s a book that begins with grief: Hattie is mourning her husband and her best friend, her neighbors grieve for what they lost in Cambodia. But grief is only a beginning. This is really a novel about survival and reconciliation.
Another writer might fall into sentimentality, bathos, or wish-fulfilling fantasy, but Gish never condescends to her characters. Their traumas and their mistakes, their self-deceptions, and their hard-earned victories read as utterly real. You will find yourself swept up and completely absorbed by this polyphonic and immensely moving novel.