Arts & Entertainment
Big issues in a small New England town
BOOK REVIEW: World and Town By Gish Jen, Knopf/Borzoi Books, Hardcover, 2001, 386 pages, $26.95
Gish Jen’s novel “World and Town” unfolds slowly, but is ultimately a rich and rewarding exploration of the American immigrant experience and, more broadly, the individual’s search for meaning and belonging.
The story opens with Hattie, a 68-year-old woman who in two years lost both her husband and best friend to cancer, and is starting over in a tiny New England town, Riverlake. Retired from both her neuroscience and teaching careers, she spends her days painting, talking with her new Riverlake friends and corresponding with the Chinese half of her family. Her mother, a white missionary to China, married a Chinese man and Hattie’s biracial status has always made her feel “other,” an outsider. Born in China, she then goes to live with her mother’s family in Iowa before going to a foster home in New England, where she meets her future lover Carter Hatch.
Hattie and Carter’s relationship is never simple. They pursue the same career path—neurobiology research—until Hattie leaves the lab largely because of unresolved tension between her and Carter, ultimately leading them to marry different partners. They don’t see each other for about 30 years—until Riverlake reunites the newly single Carter (his wife left him) with the now widowed Hattie. There, retired Carter works on pet projects and leads a yoga class. This would-be romance provides a tantalizing subplot to the main drama.
Hattie’s new neighbors provide plenty of that excitement. They’re a Cambodian family who still suffer from traumatic memories of Pol Pot’s brutal reign. The father, a somewhat taciturn man, spends his days drinking and dispensing advice to his daughter Sophy. The son, Sarun, gets involved with a gang and Sophy joins an evangelical church in town, finding solace in their extreme doctrine.
During the novel’s second section, Sophy takes over narration and lends a teenage perspective to Riverlake’s unfolding chronicle. Jen colorfully (but never cheaply) uses Sophy’s “like” infested speech to build her as a character. Sophy eagerly shares many aspects of her life, from her passion for the movie Titanic—“She thought Jack and Rose were, like, perfect!”—to her observations of her dad’s stubborn refusal to change his diet despite diabetes, to her growing attachment to the local evangelical church: “But that’s why the Bible was called Good News! And it wasn’t even, in like, one passage in the Bible, it was in a million of them. How the Lord knew everything about you, like your downsitting and your uprising and all your thoughts and ways to begin with, and how He didn’t look on outward appearances, but on the heart.”
As Sophy becomes more deeply involved with the church and Sarun becomes more embroiled in gang life, their father spirals downward emotionally until he erupts violently in a particularly surprising outburst. Jen handles these charged passages with restraint and skill, always eschewing the sensational for the believable.
With so many fully fleshed-out characters in “World,” Jen does have a few minor characters who seem somewhat one-dimensional. Hattie’s walking group friends, Beth, Grace and Candy, often come across as shrill and stereotypical. Candy is an evangelical Christian, and it’s hard to tell whether the author intended her manner to be so predictable.
But there are many things Jen does very well. She knows how to structure the novel, in an almost mirror-image formation, creating “pillars” for the story: Hattie’s narration comprises sections one, three and five; Sophy narrates section two; and Everett, the husband of Sophy’s main church friend, takes section four. In another writer’s hands this might have complicated things, but Jen expertly incorporates these distinct voices into one coherent story.
And where Hattie’s voice might seem weak or muffled in the beginning, it grows strong and sure of itself by the end, where Hattie’s true emotions—vulnerable and raw—surface in her conversations with Carter. Perhaps that’s what makes the novel’s last section so interesting.
“World and Town” satisfies as both an engaging novel and a very timely, relevant one. Though some persistence may be needed at the beginning, the unique characters soon sweep you up in their lives and let you into their world.
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