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