WANGS vs. The World
by Jade Chang
Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt | Oct 2016
Paperback: 368 pages (978-0544734098)
Genre: Fiction/Asian American/Humor/Coming of Age
ARC: NETGALLEY in exchange for an unbiased review.
Charles Wang has always felt gypped. Years ago the Communists confiscated his family’s ancestral lands and Charles lives with the belief that he was robbed of his birthright as a landed aristocrat. His family was forced to join hordes of Chinese escapees to the island of Taiwan where his father built a grim little factory that supplied urea to fertilizer manufacturers. His disgraced father had been reduced to a dealing in pee. “Not even real honest piss – artificial piss. Faux pee. A nitrogen-carrying ammonia substitute…”
Sure that he could regain his family’s fortune and status, Charles headed to the United States to sell faux pee to American fertilizer manufacturers. Airsick and relegated to the in-flight restroom, Charles practices his English reading the label of a mini-bar of soap and makes a monumental discovery…urea is an ingredient in this sweet smelling soap.
And with that discovery Charles was able to turn “Shit into Shinola” citing one of his favorite American movie phrases. In fact he made two hundred million dollars worth of Shinola and became an American cosmetics tycoon.
Living the good life in sunny California set his initial purpose of restoring the family lands in China way back in a dusty corner of his mind. He had the money but he was having too much fun with it. So much fun that he let it distract his best business sense and when turned down for a loan to start a new cosmetic line he put his his entire fortune up as collateral… the Bel Aire house, the cigarette boat, the children’s trust funds. Everything.
The new cosmetics line failed and at the same time America crashed headlong into the Great Recession of 2008. Overnight Charles lost it all. And by extension his three children and his wife lost everything too. And he did all this in secret from his family.
After shocking his spoiled and pampered wife, Barbra, with the news Charles packs a confused Barbra and his childhood nanny, Ama, into the only car available to him…the powder-blue 1980 Mercedes station wagon long ago sold to Ama. Lights off on the old car they roll down the long driveway in the dead of night to avoid the embarrassment of discovery by their neighbors to begin a long arduous journey across the US to move in with their oldest daughter in her old farm house in rural New York State.
Along the way they will pick up the other two children both away at school. The children discover abruptly that their own world just collapsed; their lives reduced to fast food restaurants and sleazy hotel rooms as they travel cross country.
And this is where the story gets crazy. Anyone who has ever taken a family vacation stuffed in a station wagon with all their squabbles and perceived injustices can relate. As the reality of their sudden drop in social standing hits them, they all work their way through the emotions of loss and the realization that their future will be far different from their recent past.
Bumping along in the old car, we watch, look and listen as we are taken back to Taiwan, disco lounge or college dorm flipping around the past and present of each character. Slowly each character changes, often subtly, until this family discovers the heart is the true source of riches.
The book was hyped as hysterically funny. Nada. But I did smile often and found it entertaining. Sometimes I wanted to reach over and step on the gas to speed things up a bit. At times Charles was so shallow and narcissistic I was turned off. Barbra, playing the role of the unloved step-mother, discovers her softer side.
When an unexpected event turns the road trip into something much more serious, I was surprised. Talk about a knock up side of the head to realign your priorities. And the final chapters were very engaging leaving me sad and hopeful at the same time.
I couldn’t help but think that this was a nice read but would make a great movie. So read the book, it will be out in October 2016. I am willing to bet you will see it screen soon after that!