As Mark gradually works her way into Joan’s life, she begins to notice her quirks from his perspective. Joan hasn’t read the books he cares about, but she’s pretending. And she doesn’t check any of the boxes for what makes Mark “a real New Yorker,” like having an opinion about the Yankees. When it becomes clear that Joan has never heard of “Seinfeld”, “Mark fell into a kind of catatonic shock. Then he looked at my doormat for a very long time. … I touched my neck and felt the flush of fear, felt my new civilized neighbor was going to tell me I was seeing the world all wrong.”
Raised in Oakland, California, to poor immigrant parents, Joan views professional success as a great equalizer. “The nice thing about being standardized,” she says, “was that you didn’t have to think beyond a certain area. Like a well-treated death, a box was placed around you, and you could feel safe in it.”
Death and boxes feature prominently in Joan’s story as she struggles with mortality and navigates both the safety and limitations of self-confinement. She mourns (in her Joan way) the death of her father. But how do you deal with death? Good, and should that be the goal? Through funny, strange and moving moments, Wang portrays Joan and her mother’s grief as messy, non-linear and palpable.
Ultimately, Joan is forced to rethink her obsession with productivity as she examines her relationships with family and society. “Was it harder being a woman? Or an immigrant? Or a Chinese outside China?” she wonders. “And why did you have to be good at one of the above so you could become someone else?”
Joan’s reckoning is compounded by the looming Covid pandemic, which affects her both personally and professionally. Wang describes the news coming out of Wuhan and elsewhere as business-increasing cases and deaths, border and business closures – evoking a sense of dread in readers who know all too well what’s to come. Joan deadpans: “Some government officials also believed 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 begins to see “clips of Asian people being attacked on the street and on the subway. Being kicked, pushed and spat on for wearing masks and being accused of bringing nothing into the country but disease.”
In tight prose, Wang masterfully balances the many horrors of this pandemic alongside Joan’s intimate, inner struggle. Reading the hospital scenes set in the spring of 2020 and re-watching the devastating toll this virus has taken and continues to take, this reader was out of order.
Throughout the novel, Joan’s wry humor is sometimes interrupted by moments of unexpected tenderness. “If I could hold success in my hand,” she says, “it would be a beating heart.” Of her parents and other first- and second-wave Chinese immigrants, Joan notes, “how immigration is often described: a death, a rebirth. … To get life back together.”
Like Joan herself, Wang’s story is both laser-focused and layered. She asks 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 okay?