One of the side effects of this election is that I’ve become very clingy and emotional. I burst into tears over design specs at work yesterday, and it’s not because design specs are inherently moving. It’s a reminder from my dumb, finicky heart, I guess, that love is what we have when the world is dark. So The Wangs vs. the World fit nicely with my current mood — a book about how a family holds tightly to each other at a time when they have lost everything.
Charles Wang came to the United States to make his fortune, and that’s exactly what he did, building a cosmetics empire from the ground up. But an ambitious new project, launched just before the financial crash at the end of the second Bush presidency, has reduced them to almost nothing. Charles, his second wife Barbara, youngest daughter Grace and son Andrew, all pile into an ancient clunker to drive across the country to live with Charles’s eldest daughter Saina, a disgraced art world it-girl who has retreated to a house in upstate New York to escape media attention.
Though The Wangs vs. the World does satirize the worlds and lifestyles of the very wealthy, its primary concern is the relationships between these family members. Jade Chang is wonderfully specific in her portrayal of these five people and what they are to each other.
Saina always enjoyed her sister so much more in the particular than in the abstract. Grace in person was funny and self-aware. Grace on the phone was unrelenting and concerned with the smallest of slights — in between visits, that became the only Grace that she remembered.
She also captures an element of sibling relationships that I rarely see writers do well, which is the lifetime of shared in-jokes and common vocabulary that ties them all together. Saina and Andrew and Grace are separated by years and years, but they remain tremendously fond of each other. When Andrew ditches the family road trip and stays in New Orleans to lose his virginity, Grace isn’t just mad that he’s left her alone with the adults; she misses him. At a time when I’m wanting to grab all my friends-and-relations in massive hugs and never let go, it was great to read a book about a family who truly enjoy each other’s company.
The book is also wonderfully funny, although I wouldn’t say that funny is the point of it. Chang refers to Saina’s “human-rights disaster of an engagement ring,” and the passage where she describes Saina’s various art shows is — to someone like me, who loves art and finds the art world incomprehensibly ridiculous — perfect. Chang is satirizing a lot of different things in this book, and as it hurtles towards its conclusion, its wonderful scope started to feel a trifle overstuffed. But it’s well worth overlooking this minor complaint for a book as joyous and sincere as this one.
(Oh, also, writers of America? In Louisiana, we don’t say “Nawlins.” We just do not. I am sorry you have been misled on this. You can say “New OR-lins” from now on.)