Review: The Wangs vs The World by Jade Chang

wangs.pngIf there’s one thing I really enjoy reading about, it’s dysfunctional families. Coming from a boringly functional one myself, I’ve always liked to spend time with argumentative and crazy fictional relations, and the Wangs are an excellent example.

We join Jade Chang’s titular family in the wake of a financial catastrophe, as patriarch Charles has lost his fortune, losing the family home, his businesses and the means to fund the education of his youngest two children, Andrew and Grace. Embarking on a road trip from their home in Los Angeles to oldest daughter Saina’s house in upstate New York, the Wangs are forced to confront the reality of their financial ruin head-on, as well as put up with living out of a car and motels for a few thousand miles.

There’s plenty going on in the book to keep the reader entertained, from Charles’ deluded scheme to reclaim lost land in China, to Saina’s complicated love life and professional embarrassment, not to mention Andrew’s humiliating attempts at stand-up comedy. I was particularly interested in their stepmother, Barbra, who swooped in after their mother’s death but plays an oddly detached role in the life of the family. The idea of longing for a true home plays a key role, with Charles’ desire to relocate to China and Saina’s purchase of a remote house to escape her life in New York City. What The Wangs vs The World really seems to be saying, however, is that home is wherever family is.

I read The Wangs vs The World a few weeks after reading Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles, which covers similar ground in terms of economic disaster, although on a very different scale, and what happens in the aftermath when a family is forced into a single space. A crucial difference is the tremendous warmth of the Wangs; even when being dragged out of school, Grace and Andrew’s resentment levels are minimal, with both showing an admirably stoic attitude to their newfound poverty. Where Shriver’s characters (as Shriver’s characters generally do) swiftly descended into petty arguments and avarice, Chang’s are a far more pleasant group in whose company to spend your reading time, with their affectionate bickering and shared memories.

Although The Wangs vs The World wasn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious, it is gently amusing in its depiction of a family who, by rights, should be falling apart but actually comes together instead.

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