Monday, June 21, 2010

Up Late

Last night I stayed up very late reading a novel, Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah. Light, funny, full of detail about life in today's Beijing for an American-Chinese expat journalist. Exotic stuff to me, different from Amy Tan and Ming Dao, and I stayed with it well past midnight, willing to read all night, but finally giving in to sleep. Looking at the author's note, I see lots of parallels between the life and the novel, but it's a fine story well written. Isabelle, a young woman from the US moves to Beijing to redesign her life, to escape the smothering matchmaking of her family and to reunite with her only sister, a successful lawyer of impeccable education and wardrobe. Isabelle struggles with her poor Mandarin--hence the title, which refers to the language she learned as a child in her mother's kitchen, struggles with her self-image, as in Chinese or American? Struggles with her historically unsuccessful attempt at maintaining a relationship. Hmmm, all girl stuff, plus the exotic. I'm hooked.

The last time I raved here over a book it was John Irving's The Last Night in Twisted River, a sprawling novel set in New England, spanning a whole life time for the protagonist. I've put it aside to read Wah's book and I'm intrigued by my defection. I've lost my connection to Irving's characters, who were compelling at first. But because his canvas is so large, we get salient points back filled by a third person narrator, a distancing effect not felt in Wah's first person narrative, wherein the back story develops as dialogue between the sisters. And the whole time frame of the current action is much more compact. It also helps me, as a persnickety reader, that no one dies in Beijing, violently or otherwise. I can relax into the story. It helps that the relationships drive the plot. I'm a sucker for peeking into someone else's head and snooping around in their motivation.

With Irving, actions--often reactions--drive the story along. Fate! Whereas Isabelle is constantly making decisions for which she must, and does, take responsibility. I could go on and on about the contrasts in these books, but I won't. It's just helpful to me as a reader to say why I'm willing to read for hours at a stretch in one book and will likely return the other to the library unfinished.  

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