Review: What We Were Promised

Last week, a highly-anticipated novel made its debut: What We Were Promised, by Lucy Tan. Little, Brown sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review — thanks, publisher friends! — and I decided to dive right in almost immediately after I opened the package.

What We Were Promised is a family saga, of sorts, and chock-full of d-r-a-m-a. Tan crafts a story around the Zhen family: Wei and Lina grew up in China before moving to America to pursue lofty dreams of higher education and corporate success. After twenty-some years, the couple has returned to their motherland, a couple decades older and joined this time by their teenage daughter, Karen. During their years abroad, they accrued wealth and success, and Wei was offered the opportunity to oversee his budding company’s newly-opened Shanghai-branch. They move into an elite hotel community at Lanson Suites, where their laundry, cooking, and cleaning are all accomplished by staff members and Lina doesn’t have to lift a finger to do more than shop for extravagant clothes and accessories. Karen spends most of the year in America at an elite boarding school, but summers with her parents in a land that is completely foreign to her.

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The family lives together, but each person seems to occupy a separate sphere of existence, interacting superficially at mealtimes (when Wei makes it home in time) and during rare moments of collective free time. At first glance, I chalked the characters up as superficial; but after deeper reflections on Wei and Lina’s complicated early relationship, I began to see the characters as complex — albeit often shallow — and savored the unwinding of their histories and present lives.

Woven into the narrative of the Zhen family’s daily life, in poignant juxtaposition, is the telling of Sunny’s experiences as first the family’s maid, and later, their ayi (nanny). Sunny is an anomaly: she’s in her late twenties/early thirties (her age is a bit ambiguous) and although she was married once before, she lives a simple, work-driven life as a single woman — childless, no less — in a society that seems to value women more when they are homemakers and wives and mothers. Sunny’s observations bring another dimension to What We Were Promised, offering readers a juicy (and often, maddening) outsider evaluation of the Zhen household.

While this book didn’t quite shake me as much as I expected it to, I did find a great deal to appreciate in Tan’s work. Her themes of cultural displacement + collective identity gave WWWP a dimension I didn’t think I’d find at the onset of the novel. The family dynamic (or quiet dysfunction, if you will), combined with the bitter taste of rotting dreams, created an atmosphere of regret and desire that made this book a compelling read.

Overall: 4 stars. Read this one if you’re a fan of family dramas and stories that span cultures. What We Were Promised is in the vein of The Leavers (think longing to belong and unfulfilling life choices), Winter Garden (think tension, unresolved pasts, and sibling rivalry/competition/contempt), and

3 New Releases You Won’t Want to Miss

June is upon us, and with it, a wealth of delightful new book releases. I’ve had my eye on several upcoming titles — chiefly, Us Against You by Fredrik Backman, the sequel to Beartown — but I’ve also been fortunate enough to receive advance copies of a handful of distinctly different books that I rather enjoyed and want to share with everyone!

The Ones We Choose by Julie Clark. Fiction, 368 pages. This novel was released May 8 by Gallery Books. It’s part family drama, part science lesson — and believe me when I tell you, as a very unscientific-minded individual, the science component of this book completely made the story. Paige Robson, main character and geneticist extraordinaire, is a single mother to an increasingly inquisitive 8-year-old boy named Miles. She’s always been honest with Miles: he was conceived via sperm donor. She’s also done a fantastic job of raising her son collectively with her mother and her sister’s family. However, Paige didn’t account for the boy’s desperate need to know who his biological father is — and his fury at her, for having deprived him this standard piece of the family pie. All Paige knows for certain is that her own father was a deeply disappointing figure in her own life, and she wants so much more for Miles.

When Miles makes a friend at his new school, Paige is thrilled — twofold, when she realizes his mom is fun for her to hang around, too. And while the families become closer, Paige begins to let her guard down one day at a time . . . until a few cataclysmic events coincide to turn her life upside down.

I love, love, loved the fascinating science mini-lessons sprinkled between chapters in this family drama, and that’s saying something coming from a self-proclaimed science-hater. (I hated the subject in school. It was boring. This book totally changed that outlook.) Ultimately, this is a book about relationships and how we define ourselves based on our relationships with our families — especially our parents. Overall: A solid 4/5 stars.

***

Goodbye, Sweet Girl by Kelly Sundberg. Memoir, 254 pages. This prosodic personal work was released June 5 from Harper Books. I was wowed by Sundberg’s depth of voice and her unflinching portrait of her reality: that of an abused wife who doesn’t know that she needs to (and later, how to) leave her angry, damaging husband.

I’ve never been in a physically abusive relationship (or verbally abusive, for that matter). Like most other people who’ve never been abused, I’ve often mused about how a woman (or man) can stay in an abusive relationship. How can they stay tethered to someone who hits them? Screams at them? Belittles them? How can they be with someone who doesn’t respect them?

I still don’t fully comprehend such scenarios, but Sundberg’s memoir is such an honest processing of the kind of decisions that go into such relationships, I do feel like I came to an understanding of sorts about the kind of thinking — and emotional evolving — that makes it so difficult for people to leave abusive relationships.

The chronology of this book is very disjointed; an aspect that works really well in general, but can be confusing from time to time. In some ways, it reads like a conversation; as though you’re sitting in a cafe with Kelly Sundberg and she’s recounting her life experiences, jumping from one memory to the next without any care as to which event happened first or next or last — only that they happened. Ultimately, I really, really appreciated the strength of Sundberg’s voice in this work and the absolutely unapologetic story she tells. 4/5 stars.

***

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. Fiction – detective story, 387 pages. Released (in the US) June 5 by Harper Books. This was my first Horowitz novel, and based on the Goodreads reviews, it isn’t his best. But I can’t tell you that, remember? — because I haven’t read any of his other works. About halfway through, I realized that Horowitz was writing himself as the main character (would’ve definitely realized this earlier if I’d been paying closer attention to the fact that the MC’s name is “Anthony” and/or if I was familiar with his bio) — which made for a bit of a trippy fiction read. Allow me to explain:

The Word is Murder is a detective novel that follows a writer — Anthony — and his retired-but-still-kinda-working detective friend, Hawthorne. The relationship is supposedly evocative of Holmes & Watson, but — gulp — I’ve never read any Sherlock Holmes, sooo . . . I can’t attest to the effectiveness of this recreation. Anthony’s done some writing work with Hawthorne in the past (he consults with Hawthorne when writing scenes that involve police work), but one day Hawthorne comes to Anthony with a fresh idea: he wants Anthony to write a book about him. For half of the profits.

As the two begrudgingly work alongside one another to unravel the secrets of a recent string of murders/attempted murders, Anthony narrates events with no dearth of snark — and that’s part of what makes this read so entertaining. I can’t say I loved either Anthony or Hawthorne’s characters (they were both a bit . . . prick-ish? . . . for my taste), but I did quite enjoy the murder mystery at the heart of the work. The writing was solid, if a bit self-proud at times, and I certainly intend to pick up Horowitz’s other highly-praised novel, The Magpie Murders. Overall: 3.5-4 stars.

Review: Girls Burn Brighter

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly 21 million adults and children are bought and sold globally, into both forced-labor and sex trade. Of these 21 million, when the trade is for sexual exploitation, ninety-six percent of victims are women and girls. (See more here.)

The sickening truth of these statistics is driven home in Shobha Rao’s debut novel, Girls Burn Brighter — a harrowing tale of friendship and feminism that I wouldn’t recommend lightly. Given the utterly horrific backdrop the story is set against, the novel’s tone can be described as despairing and nightmarish, at best. Although I believe the narrative is an important one, this novel wasn’t quite what I hoped it could be and I feel very conflicted about it. Let me explain:

Girls Burn Brighter is a fictional story of two girls in early-2000s Indravalli, India. Poornima and Savitha come from different families, but both belong to the impoverished  weaving caste. Poornima’s mother dies when she is fifteen, extinguishing hope in the girl’s very core as she approaches marriageable age and prepares for a very different life than the one she’s always known. Frequently chastised by her father, who is bitter at Poornima’s very existence — the cost of a dowry cannot be overlooked as more than a waste of resources — Poornima leads a joyless existence, finding pleasure only in her charkha, where she spins the thread that her father will weave into saris.

Savitha is from the other side of Indravalli, where pigs and rats mingle with children to dig through trash heaps and find recyclable materials that can be sold for a rupee here and there. Her father, once a drunk, is decrepit and rendered useless by arthritis; though he loves his daughter, despite her lowly status as a female. Her mother cleans houses for other people and Savitha rummages in garbage to merely survive, though her true passion lies in sari-making. When Savitha arrives at the door of Poornima’s family home, though, the two soon become bound together in a love that uplifts and sets their souls ablaze. They become confidantes, closer than sisters. Their friendship is something to behold, truly.

A cataclysmic event sends the girls reeling, and the two careen in different directions that take them into the horrific world of human trafficking and forced servitude. In an effort to be reunited — and escape the horrors of their new realities — the two embark on separate journeys that span years and continents.

***

The first half of this book is bittersweet in its hopeful telling of the girls’ unforeseen friendship. It is, admittedly, a much more tolerable section of the novel, as background is being established before the hammer really drops. The narrative is sweet, obviously, for the beautiful companionship that blooms before readers’ very eyes as Poornima and Savitha become acquainted and eventually, inseparable. Bitter, though, most certainly, because the girls exist in a world that has no love for women. It was very humbling, indeed, to read the many ways in which Poornima and Savitha faced discrimination and abuse (verbal, psychological, emotional, sexual) at the hands of men merely for the crime of being born a woman.

In fact, there were many noteworthy gems from the first half of the book that I tracked while I read, such as —

“. . . it seemed to her that anything a person has held is a thing that they never really let go.”

and

“She even felt pride at times, and said to herself, I was their hope and I came true. Imagine not coming true. Imagine not having hope.”

The prose at the onset of the novel is beautiful, even in the sad places, and lyrical.

For me, the novel fell apart about halfway through. The prose seemed to become more rambling and aimless in direct proportion to the sharp increase of horrific circumstances that kept coming and coming.

Here’s the thing: I understand Rao’s position as the writer, and the choice she made, to create this deeply disturbing novel that is so true to life for the millions of women and girls who have been exploited. I get that. But it felt like the point of this novel should have been (or was intended to be) this portrait of feminine resilience and hope . . . and after this continual stream of negative events the hope flame just died. It went out cold.

Part of this may be due to the fact that Rao made her point early on — about the crime of being born a woman in India (and in some ways, globally) — and the repetitive narrative that followed was almost just gruesome to be gruesome. It’s hard to go into specifics without divulging too much; so I’ll just leave it at this: I was disappointed by the way this novel unfolded. The end did not completely disappoint me, though others have lamented the abrupt conclusion.

As you can see by my rambling, I liked quite a few things about the novel — the girls’ resilience and devotion to one another, the lyrical prose at the start — but there was still something to be desired at the conclusion. I felt like Rao included a few things that just . . . didn’t need to be there (the old man’s narrative in the car — like, what?).

Overall: 3/5 stars, some days more of a 2-star read. I would not recommend this to readers who are sensitive to abuse or sexual violence.

A huge thank you to Flatiron Books and @worldswithinpages for hosting this giveaway on Instagram, where I won the book! If you’re not following their accounts, check ’em out — and while you’re at it, look me up: @littlereaderontheprairie.