“The handsome son, the accomplished son, and the good son.” Three brothers, none alike in dignity, are at the heart of The Family Chao’s immigrant tale. Set in smalltown Wisconsin, Lan Samantha Chang’s book is a mash-up of literary mystery, social commentary and romantic comedy. And in case that’s not enough, it’s also billed as a modern-day retelling of The Brothers Karamazov.
This results in a busy, bristling narrative that has plenty to say about immigrants in America, the generational legacies of families who have fought to survive, and, most unusually, the Asian model minority myth, whereby the diverse experiences of a particular community are subsumed by the cliches and bias of wider society.
Chang subverts this myth by focusing on the flaws of her characters. Patriarch Leo Chao is a corrupt narcissist who thinks his sons are forever in debt to him for their American citizenship. The eldest, Dagou, heir apparent to the family restaurant, is lazy and spineless, a man who can’t quite finish with his long-term girlfriend, even though he’s cheating on her. Middle son Ming is full of hatred for his father, his culture, for any perceived weakness in his brothers. Youngest son James is kind but naive, a college student who lacks direction. And their mother, Winnie, has finally walked out on her philandering husband and taken shelter with a group of nuns.
This broken family gets together over the course of a chaotic few days in the run-up to Christmas, with predictably disastrous results. But, to the author’s credit, the plot itself is not predictable, twisting and turning in such frenzied style that the reader is blindsided by the main event – the sudden death of a family member that ultimately results in a court case, where the brothers, and the wider Chinese-American community, come together to face down a racist, prejudiced society.
Chang ramps up the frenzy by using an omniscient narrator, flitting between the perspectives of family members, and occasionally to side characters, such as Dagou’s jilted lover Katherine, or Olan, the hired help who is treated like a skivvy: “Her actions in the kitchen are ruthless and efficient, the actions of a person who wishes to remember nothing.”
Adding further busyness is a stylistic choice to play with form. Some parts of
the story are told through radio show segments, social media commentaries and a blog written by a budding journalism student.
The novel sometimes strains under the weight of it all. The narrative doesn’t quite earn its length, circling back on the main plot points from various viewpoints, and recapping these same events at the trial. The court scenes are true to life, authentic, but at the expense of drama. Transitions can be clumsy, particularly at the beginning and end of sections, a factor of the present tense mixed with omniscient third (“At last, Dagou has arrived”), and dialogue is too often used as a way to include long passages on family history and back story.
Chang gets away with most of this because the whodunnit plot drives things forward. She is a perceptive, witty writer who revels in the mess of this dysfunctional family. There are layers to her characters; culpability isn’t clear cut, from the individual family members to society as a whole. Dagou’s long-suffering, seemingly perfect ex Katharine is one example: “Because she was adopted by well-meaning white people and raised apart from her kind, she’s stuck on us. She’s fetishized us.” Another more obvious one is the treatment of Dagou by the media, who nickname him “Dog Eater” before the trial begins.
Chang is the author of the award-winning books Hunger and Inheritance, and the novel All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost. Her work has been translated into nine languages and twice chosen for The Best American Short Stories. A recent Berlin Prize winner, she has received creative writing fellowships from Stanford University, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Iowa City, where she is the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
The Family Chao is a bracing exploration of an immigrant family at odds with
each other and the world around them. Other recent books that come to mind include Susie Yang's White Ivy, Lillian Li's Number One Chinese Restaurant and Michelle Zauner's memoir Crying in H Mart. As with the latter, Chang is excellent on food as cultural signifier, how it can unite or divide a family over generations: "Hunger of spirit is hunger of body. The answer lies in the stomach."
Here the restaurant backdrop is used effectively to both pigeonhole the family and to expose the casual racism of the wider community. Or as the prologue memorably notes: “No one could have believed that such good food was cooked by bad people.”