Review: What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan

I really enjoyed Lucy Tan’s debut novel about a family living in modern-day Shanghai.  Wei, Lina and their teenage daughter Karen are a wealthy family  living in a luxurious “serviced” apartment, that have recently moved from America to Shanghai. The story is told from their perspective, as well as that of their cleaner, Sunny.  Through Sunny’s eyes we see this wealthy family that wants for nothing.  Through Lina and Wei’s eyes, we see their past, their love for each other, and their challenges as a family.

I appreciated this close look at the marriage of two people who were promised to each other as babies in a small town in China.  Their parents were close friends and as Wei and Lina grew up, both saw more and more to like in the other — until Lina became close to Wei’s adventurous younger brother Qiang.  Qiang disappeared from Wei and Lina’s life the day they married, and he pops back into it many years later, when this book begins. The book slowly explores their friendship as young adults and Qiang’s difficult relationship with his brother and family.

It may be me, but this story of frustrated love was much less interesting than that of Wei and Lina’s quiet marriage, their careers, and their movement from one country to another and then back again.  (I suppose because I’m about their age and have been married about that long.)  I was really interested in Lina’s struggle with her own identity.  As a young woman, she was educated and intelligent– she loved her parents deeply and wanted to please them but also wanted adventure and independence.  As an  expat in America, she worked hard as a teacher and a mother and wife.  But now she’s the stereotypical wealthy wife who doesn’t know what to do with herself, who gets her maid fired when a bracelet goes missing. She’s full of contradictions and I appreciated that.

She could barely remember which career paths had excited her back then.  Surely, it would have been easier to imagine a different outcome for herself at that age than it was now, when half her life had already been lived… “I feel as though anyone could have lived my life; it’s just me that happens to be here.  Or in Copenhagen.  Or in America.”

In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of Behold the Dreamers, because of its look at characters on both sides of a class divide who are mostly decent people.  Both books look what it means to make a place home — or to feel like an outsider.  I’ve never been to Shanghai but I felt like this book gave me a good idea what it was like, for the different groups living there.

While Sunny isn’t given as much time in this story, I really appreciated her perspective as a woman who is trying to make her own way in the world.  Tan doesn’t just make her an observer of Lina, Wei and Qiang, but a character with her own story to tell.

The weakness of this thoughtful, well-written book is the love story itself, which seemed at times to lean too much on the trope of the successful older brother, the rebellious younger brother, and the girl who comes between them.  That said, there was much that rings true about struggling to connect with an estranged family member, and the powerful memories of first love.

I had mixed feelings about the story Tan reveals at the end, because I thought she tried to sum it up in a way that felt a bit too neat. My preference is always for complexity and nuance, and fortunately she leaves this story with a good bit of that. I found myself rooting for all the characters in this complicated story.

According to Goodreads, author Lucy Tan grew up in the United States but has spent much of her adult life in Shanghai; she spent two years in Shanghai living with her parents in a serviced apartment. This is her debut novel.

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this novel from NetGalley and publisher Little, Brown and Co.  The book published July 10, 2018.

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