The Love Wife

Gish Jen

This book has been staring at me from the book shelf for a few weeks. I even gave it for Christmas to a couple of people, based on the recommendations of others. Let me say quickly that having started it yesterday on a new trip to Yunnan province (where the weather is gloriously warm and bright), I have not been disappointed. The writing is witty and incisive, and the author establishes an intimate feeling from the very first pages. The novel is the story of a mixed marriage between a Chinese-American man, Carnegie Wong, a Wasp wife, who is called Blondie, their three children, his mother, who dies of Alzheimer’s early on, but haunts them in the afterlife, and the ayi, or live in helper, who has come from China.
A quick passage about the mother:
Carnegie: To wit: she had, in her day, escaped from the Mainland by swimming across the harbor to Hong Kong. How appropriate was that? Given that there were sharks in the water; given that she couldn’t even swim, exactly. Anyone else would have thought twice. But my mother, being my mother, simply snugged a basketball under each arm, kicked until she got there, then looked up a distant cousin.
Where there is will, there is way, she would explain, years later, if asked.
Or else: I just don’t like those Communists.
Now she still said these things, her eyes blank.
— Where there is will.
— Those Communists.
— My cousin surprised, yes. Surprised.
Once I have her a nightgown printed with fish for Mother’s Day; she still wore it to bed at night. It had grown diaphanous with washing, so that you could see through the trout to her nipples, which sported the forlornly useful look of spare-the-counter stick-on appliance feet. Worse, you could see her diaper, which she needed. She cried and cried while I tried to get her to drink juice.
— You are going to become dehydrated, I told her. Do you want to dry up?
Often, in her early years at the Overlook, she still had her English, having attended a primary school run by American missionaries. How lucky fo rus! Often too, she still joked. What? You think you are white? You are Wong! Wong! Wong! she would say, banging her hands on her mattress. Or else: Two Wongs — two Wongs — two – don’t make a white!

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