Gish Jen’s third novel, The Love Wife, is narrated by a melange of voices which, together and separately, chronicle the story of the Wong family. As a graduate student in the Midwest, tender-hearted Carnegie Wong impulsively adopts Lizzy, an Asian foundling. Then he meets and marries Janie Bailey, whom his mother promptly renames Blondie (with all the negative connotations intact). Before the rehearsal dinner Mama Wong, who longs for a genuine Chinese daughter-in-law, offers each a million dollars not to marry. Predictable generational and ethnic conflicts ensue, but the redoubtable Mama Wong, who once swam from Mainland China to Taiwan with a basketball under each arm, never gives up, even after she develops Alzheimer’s Disease and is institutionalized.
Further complications arise. Fourteen years later, the Wongs have two adopted daughters, rebellious Lizzy and the younger, more empathetic Wendy, as well as their unexpected biological son Bailey, blond and blue-eyed like his mother. Mama Wong strikes from the grave when Lan, a distant relative from Communist China, is summoned to be the children’s nanny. Blondie fears that Lan is the secondary “love wife” that Carnegie always should have had and begins to feel very much an outsider in this family.
Misinformation and misunderstandings abound. The difficulties inherent in an interracial marriage are viewed through both Blondie and Carnegie, two people still in love, while a great gulf emerges between Lan and her American family. Even as Lan feels she is being treated like a servant, Carnegie finds himself surprisingly attracted to her. Author Jen has the rare ability to intuit all sides of a highly emotional issue and render them sympathetically and with humor through the eyes of her characters.