Written by Jade Chang
Audiobook read by Nancy Wu
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on October 4th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Asian American
THE WANGS VS. THE WORLD is an outrageously funny tale about a wealthy Chinese-American family that “loses it all, then takes a healing, uproarious road trip across the United States” (Entertainment Weekly). Their spectacular fall from riches to rags brings the Wangs together in a way money never could. It’s an epic family saga and an entirely fresh look at what it means to belong in America.
Jade Chang’s debut novel, The Wangs vs. The World, came out around the same time as Imbolo Mbue’s debut, Behold the Dreamers. Both novels deal with immigrant families affected by the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession–it’s tempting to make comparisons. I’d love to do that too, but since that will only appeal to others who’ve read both books I’ll resist it in this discussion. (But if you’ve read both too and are up for that conversation, meet me in the comments!)
The Wangs Vs. The World (And The Banks)
- What’s it about? Charles Wang came to America from Taiwan with nothing. Years later, he had everything: a cosmetics empire, a house in Bel-Air, cars, cash, and three American-born children. But when he risked everything on a new product line, he lost everything. All he has left is a secret scheme to reclaim something his family lost–their land in China, seized by the Communists decades earlier.
But before Charles can return to China, he and his family need to get out of Bel-Air. He and his wife Barbra set out in the family’s last car, with daughter Grace and son Andrew, on a cross-country road trip older daughter Saina’s house in the Catskills. They’ll bide their time there until Charles can claim his birthright and take them all back to his homeland.
- Why did I read it? The comparisons I mentioned earlier made me choose The Wangs vs. The World as my next audiobook after Behold the Dreamers.
The Wangs Hit the Road
- What worked for me? That little synopsis I wrote up there makes The Wangs vs. The World sound rather heavy. I don’t want to mislead you, though. The abrupt, literal reversal of fortune confronted by the Wangs is a serious enough situation, but Jade Chang has framed it with a comic road-trip novel. Her smart observations about class and culture are especially funny when they’re delivered through character dialogue by audiobook narrator Nancy Wu. The humor made me cringe at times, but I think that was a reaction to the sympathy I felt for this family. As Chang shifts narrative perspectives back and forth among the Wangs, we get to see them as they see each other. I saw a family I really hoped would land in a good place at the end of their road.
- What didn’t I like? I realize that a comic road-trip novel requires mishaps, but at times I wondered if Chang was putting the Wangs through entirely too many of them. I wouldn’t have minded trading some plot for more character moments.
- Recommended? Yes, particularly in audio. The Wangs vs. The World is a fun take on a family in crisis, filtered through an Asian-American lens.
THE WANGS VS. THE WORLD: Opening Lines
Charles Wang was mad at America.
Actually, Charles Wang was mad at history.
If the death-bent Japanese had never invaded China, if a million ?— ?a billion ?— ?misguided students and serfs had never idolized a balding academic who parroted Russian madmen and couldn’t pay for his promises, then Charles wouldn’t be standing here, staring out the window of his beloved Bel-Air home, holding an aspirin in his hand, waiting for those calculating assholes from the bank ?— ?the bank that had once gotten down on its Italianate-marble knees and kissed his ass ?— ?to come over and repossess his life.
Without history, he wouldn’t be here at all.
He’d be there, living out his unseen birthright on his family’s ancestral acres, a pampered prince in silk robes, writing naughty, brilliant poems, teasing servant girls, collecting tithes from his peasants, and making them thankful by leaving their tattered households with just enough grain to squeeze out more hungry babies.
Instead, the world that should have been his fell apart, and the great belly of Asia tumbled and roiled with a noxious foreign indigestion that spewed him out, bouncing him, hard, on the tropical joke of Taiwan and then, when he popped right back up, belching him all the way across the vast Pacific Ocean and smearing him onto this, this faceless green country full of grasping newcomers, right alongside his unclaimed countrymen: the poor, illiterate, ball-scratching half men from Canton and Fujian, whose highest dreams were a cook’s apron and a back-alley, backdoor fuck.
Oh, he shouldn’t have been vulgar.
Charles Wang shouldn’t even know about the things that happen on dirt-packed floors and under stained sheets. Centuries of illustrious ancestors, scholars and statesmen and gentlemen farmers all, had bred him for fragrant teas unfurling in fresh springwater, for calligraphy brushes of white wolf hair dipped in black deer-glue ink, for lighthearted games of chance played among true friends.
Not this. No, not this. Not for him bastardized Peking duck eaten next to a tableful of wannabe rappers and their short, chubby, colored-contact-wearing Filipino girlfriends at Mr. Chow. Not for him shoulder-to-shoulder art openings where he sweated through the collar of his paper-thin cashmere sweater and stared at some sawed-in-half animal floating in formaldehyde whose guts didn’t even have the courtesy to leak; not for him white women who wore silver chopsticks in their hair and smiled at him for approval. Nothing, nothing in his long lineage had prepared him for the Western worship of the Dalai Lama and pop stars wearing jade prayer beads and everyone drinking goddamn boba chai.
He shouldn’t be here at all. Never should have set a single unbound foot on the New World. There was no arguing it. History had started fucking Charles Wang, and America had finished the job.
America was the worst part of it because America, that fickle bitch, used to love Charles Wang.
Reviews for this one have been mixed. I was thinking of pitching it to my book club for our yearly book selection but now I am thinking no.
Was it something I said? I enjoyed listening to this one, but honestly, I’m not sure how well it’ll stick with me over time.
I wasn’t aware of the humor. It sounds like something I’d enjoy myself but my group is weird. They hate anything sad, anything too funny, anything not serious or too serious. They seem to always want to remain right smack in the middle of normal which makes for a boring reading list.
Given all those conditions, you’re probably making the right call not to suggest it to your book club! I agree that you might like it, though.