As Mark gradually weasels his way into Joan’s life, she begins to take notice of her idiosyncrasies from his perspective. Joan hasn’t read the books he thinks are important, but she pretends she has. And she fails to check any of the boxes for what, according to Mark, makes “a true New Yorker,” like having an opinion about the Yankees. When it becomes clear Joan has never heard of “Seinfeld,” “Mark fell into what resembled a catatonic state of shock. Then he looked down, for a long time, at my doormat. … I touched my neck and felt the flush of anxiety, felt my new cultured neighbor was about to tell me that I perceived the world all wrong.”
Having grown up in Oakland, Calif., with poor immigrant parents, Joan views professional success as a great equalizer. “The joy of having been standardized,” she says, “was that you didn’t need to think beyond a certain area. Like a death handled well, a box had been put around you, and within it you could feel safe.”
Death and boxes feature prominently in Joan’s story, as she grapples with mortality and navigates both the safety and constraints of self-confinement. She’s mourning (in her very Joan way) her father’s death. But how does one handle death well, and should that even be the goal? Through funny, weird and touching moments, Wang depicts Joan’s and her mother’s grief as messy, nonlinear and palpable.
Eventually, Joan is forced to reconsider her obsession with productivity as she takes a hard look at her relationships to family, and society. “Was it harder to be a woman? Or an immigrant? Or a Chinese person outside of China?” she asks herself. “And why did being a good any of the above require you to edit yourself down so you could become someone else?”
Joan’s reckoning is exacerbated by the looming Covid pandemic, which impacts her personally as well as professionally. Wang details the news coming out of Wuhan and elsewhere matter-of-factly — increasing case counts and deaths, border and business closings — sparking a sense of dread in readers who know all too well what’s coming. Joan deadpans: “Some government officials also believed that it was important to keep the American people informed and reminded of where the virus really came from. So, the China virus, the Chinese virus, the kung flu.” Online she starts to see “clips of Asian people being attacked in the street and on the subways. Being kicked, pushed and spat on for wearing masks and being accused of having brought nothing else into the country except disease.”
In taut prose, Wang masterfully balances the many terrors of this pandemic alongside Joan’s intimate, interior struggles. Reading the hospital scenes set in the spring of 2020, revisiting the devastating toll this virus has taken and continues to take, this reader was not OK.
Throughout the novel, Joan’s wry humor is sometimes punctuated by moments of unexpected tenderness. “If I could hold success in my hand,” she says, “it would be a beating heart.” Regarding her parents and other first- and second-wave Chinese immigrants, Joan notes “how immigration is often described: a death, a rebirth. … To piece back together life.”
Like Joan herself, Wang’s narrative is at once laser-focused and multilayered. She raises provocative questions about motherhood, daughterhood, belonging and the many definitions of “home.” What do we owe our parents? Our children? And are any of us OK?