Thursday, May 27, 2021

Lucy Tan - What We Were Promised

After years of chasing the American dream, the Zhen family has moved back to China. Settling into a luxurious serviced apartment in Shanghai, Wei, Lina, and their daughter, Karen, join an elite community of Chinese-born, Western-educated professionals who have returned to a radically transformed city.
One morning, in the eighth tower of Lanson Suites, Lina discovers that a childhood keepsake, an ivory bracelet, has gone missing. The incident contributes to a wave of unease that has begun to settle throughout the Zhen household. Wei, a marketing strategist, bows under the guilt of not having engaged in nobler work. Meanwhile, Lina, lonely in her new life of leisure, assumes the modern moniker taitai--a housewife who does no housework at all. She spends her days haunted by the circumstances surrounding her arranged marriage to Wei and her lingering feelings for his brother, Qiang. Lina and Wei take pains to hide their anxieties, but their housekeeper, Sunny, a hardworking girl with secrets of her own, bears witness to their struggles. When Qiang reappears in Shanghai after decades on the run with a local gang, the family must finally come to terms with the past.
From a silk-producing village in rural China, up the corporate ladder in suburban America, and back again to the post-Maoist nouveau riche of modern Shanghai, WHAT WE WERE PROMSED explores the question of what we owe to our country, our families, and ourselves.

Comment: This is the book I scheduled to buddy read with my friend H. this month. I can't remember why we added it to our TBRs but it probably had something to do with the characters being Asian and returning to their country after years living in America and how the cultural and social changes might be.

In this novel, the author's debut, we meet the Zhen family and the story begins when they move back to Shanghai after years living in America. Due to Wei's work, he and his wife Lina and their daughter Karen return to a very different city from what they remember and they all realize their experience abroad has made them look different to those who never left. There is a difference in social status, in how everyone sees them, both Asians and foreigners with whom they still have contact and even in what kind of behavior is expected of them. How can they cope with such changes and what can it mean to how they deal with the impact of their backgrounds on the choices they made, especially Wei and Lina?

I think the idea of this book was an interesting one and that was, mostly, why I liked the blurb and why I felt compelled to read it. I was curious to see how the family would deal with going back to a city they left with big dreams and even though they return with social status and financial stability, are they the same people? Can they still relate to other Asians? Do others see them as foreigners now too, since they assimilated so much of the culture of the country where they stayed?

All these things inspired me to want to read the book and I thought this would be the core of the story, whether focused on the family as a loving group facing changes together or as people who would find a new connection by sharing the experience of returning. I really thought this would be it and added to the characters mentioned in the blurb, I imagined they would face some problems or some shocks when dealing with an Asian employee who didn't have the same opportunities and a family member with different points of view and notions of what was right or wrong.

Well, the focus of the story is actually the characters' secrets and insecurities. Lina spends the whole book explaining why her arranged marriage is the way it is and how she felt she was in love with her husband's brother and Wei is an workaholic who can't seem to be able to communicate with his wife and child. I suppose I shouldn't expect a focus on cultural aspects just because it's a different culture from mine and that apparently mundane issues would be so important but, alas, it feels like it was so.

I lost interest in the story as the pages went by. I kept reading so I could talk to my friend about it and I still wanted to know if there was some kind of event or reveal that would surprise me at the end but to be honest, I don't feel it happened and the end was as bland as the beginning. I see the author wanting to convey an idea, a slice of life of a family and how the things from their past influenced several of their choices but apart from one scene or two I don't think anything that matters really took place here and the characters didn't seem to evolve or be affected that much by what was going on. Sure, they would think on things but how that impacted their personalities/behavior, I don't think it showed.

If the characters don't see to have any kind of break through, what is the goal here, I wonder.... just a sharing of how expectations and cultural traditions might impact someone's choices? Not really, perhaps more an impact on their feelings about the whole thing but I was quite bored by how flat the characters' remained until the end, as if being part of this story was not even relevant, much less special.

The execution felt a little weak, some things weren't developed well, other things took too long and went nowhere (like setting up some idea/ situation and then nothing comes out of it), the author seemed to want to convey tension and uncomfortable relationships but the book ended before anything could reach any sort of climax. the things being shared, Lina's secret feelings and all that felt very thin if one looks at this as a drama she could not avoid. Some chapters were a little boring.

I was not impressed with this, I really thought the story would go on a different rout, based on the blurb. I thought it would also include a lot more Sunny, the housekeeper turned babysitter, and although I wasn't expecting a focus on romance, I feel the character's relationships were not explored well enough and the rest felt too bland. I think this will not be a book I'll remember much of in a few weeks.

Grade: 5/10

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