What to do this weekend

Read this book

I finished the book on Wednesday night and am really curious what adoptive parents and adoptees think about this story.

From author Wendy Lee’s web site:

When Hua Wu arrives in New York City,
her life seems destined to resemble that of countless immigrants before
her. She spends her hectic days working in a restaurant, and her
lonesome nights in a crowded tenement, yearning for those she left
behind in Fuzhou, China.

But one day
everything changes for Hua, when she meets Jane Templeton and her
daughter Lily, a two-year-old adopted from China. Worried that Lily
will know little about the country of her birth, or her native
language, Jane eventually decides to hire Hua to be her nanny.

the moment she steps into Jane’s West Village brownstone, Hua finds
herself in a world far removed from the cramped streets of China
or her grandmother’s home in Fuzhou. Soon she is deeply attached to
Lily and her adoptive parents. But when cracks show in the beautiful
façade, what will Hua do to protect the little girl who reminds her so
much of her own past? An elegant and poignant debut novel, Happy Family
is an entrancing exploration of love and loss, the familiar and the
foreign, and the ties that bind strangers together.

I don’t want to give away the story, because I want people to read it for themselves. A few thoughts however:

  • I appreciated that this story wasn’t told from the adoptive parent’s perspective. I thought having the protagonist be a fellow Chinese immigrant (by fellow I mean that both the main character and Lily are immigrants yet how they are perceived and the way they get to America are so contrasting) offered a perspective and juxtaposed American/Chinese values of just what makes one "Chinese" more thought provoking than from a purely white/adoptive parent perspective (see also Wang Ping’s poem from her book, The Magic Whip).
  • I’m curious whether the narrative distance in the relationship between the main character, Hua, and the adoptive parents contributed or offered more or less empathy than some of the other books where the story is told from the perspective of the adoptive parents.
  • Having read "Digging to China" [**Edited – Oops, several people reminded me it’s "Digging to America" by Anne Tyler, not Digging to China!] and "The Love Wife" which also feature Asian adoption but from the perspectives of adoptive parents, how do the adoptive parents in "Happy Family" compare? Are they more stereoptyped? Less? The same? I find some common characterizations in all of these books, as well as an especially specific "type" of adoptive mother portrayal in these novels.
  • Do you think this story is making a statement about international adoption? Or is the adoption story a vehicle for Hua’s character development?

I encourage people to read this book, and maybe we can discuss. Anyone read it already? Want to comment?

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

11 thoughts

  1. I’d love to. I just put my reserve on the book, which is on order at our public library. Your last recommendation, the title of which now escapes me–the inter-connected stories, some featuring adoption,–by a Vietnamese author, was powerful and thought-provoking, not to mention, terrific.

  2. Oooh, I just got a copy and can’t WAIT to read it but I can’t do it this weekend. Tomorrow my eldest graduates from high school, and Sunday is an all-day training for Pact Camp counselors! But I promise to read it before camp and we can have a mini book club there. 🙂

  3. I am going to get it too! It looks pretty interesting. But by the time I order it in (to my rural town with zero bookstores)and read it, I may have it done by September 🙂
    Let do a review… but give us slow readers some extra time O.K.!? 😉

  4. I have not read this book, but your description definitely makes me want to do so.
    FYI, There’s a short story by Mary Gaitskill, whose writing I often have loved, in this week’s (June 9) New Yorker entitled “Don’t Cry” that follows a woman accompanying her best friend to Ethiopia to adopt a child. A telling detail: they’re in Ethiopia partly because her friend thinks it’s unfair that, in domestic private adoptions, adoptive parents have to reveal their whole lives to birth mothers but not vice versa.
    This story goes on to make a lot of the mistakes of literary adoption stories (told from an a-parent perspective) and of Western literature set in Africa / developing countries: 1) the Ethiopian landscape and people are beautiful-but-dysfunctional backdrops for the individual development of the two white main characters, and 2) the child, likewise, functions as a totally unrealistic and almost mystical symbol of the white women’s hopes and dreams and general goodness. (The exotic experience that gives them a little more wisdom than their smart-but-naive liberal friends.)
    The child goes from being completely malnourished and uncoordinated to walking, smiling, and immediately / miraculously bonding with the A-Mom–despite that she’s out getting documentation done most of the time–in the course of a few days. The narrator says the child makes it clear that he knows that she, the narrator, is “just the nurse” while her friend is the “real” mom.
    I was very disappointed in this story.

  5. I will order it today. This is the reason I love your blog. You always want us to think. I appreciate that.

  6. I’ll get one for me, and one for my mom. I can’t wait to discuss it ‘with’ you. Sounds interesting. I hated ‘Digging to America” BTW. It seems to me the author was trying to make some kind of statement about the white adoptive parents in the story, but I could never quite figure out what it was. It just seems like they were prtrayed as such buffoons, while the Iranian family was so classy and beautiful.

  7. I looked up “Digging To China” on my library’s website but couldn’t tell which of two books you were referring to. Who is the author? I’ve ordered “Happy Family”. Thanks for the reading suggestion. I LOVE it when someone points me in the direction of a book. I’ll let you know what I think.

  8. I’m not familar with Digging to China. Do you mean Digging to America by Anne Tyler? It’s about two Korean adoptees, one adopted by Iranian immigrants. I really enjoyed it.
    Thank you for the tip on Happy Family – I just bought it.
    I love your blog by the way. I check it out almost daily.

  9. Thanks for this one. I have requested it from my local library.
    And, I second Andy’s praise, you have a great blog. Thanks for making me think.

  10. [Warning: Plot spoiler…] I finished it a couple days ago. I really enjoyed it. Here are some quick reactions…
    I thought it was a well-written novel, and I enjoyed it.
    I thought it was very ironic that Jane adopted from China partially b/c she was afraid of a domestic birth parent coming back to steal the baby, yet her daughter is kidnapped anyway by someone who was close to having been a Chinese birth parent. I loved that irony.
    You asked about empathy… do you mean empathy with the adopted child? With adoptive parents? With Hua? I certainly felt empathy for Hua. I felt anxious when she was poking around Jane’s apartment (b/c I feared she might be caught at any moment) but I felt that her looking through Jane’s things, and even trying out her clothes and makeup, made it a bit more believable that she might kidnap Lily.
    As for stereotypes… I think that Bitsy in _Digging to America_ (a book I also liked) was extremely stereotyped, to (effective) comic degree. She did everything that parents and adoptive parents are told to do (e.g., stimulating an infant with black-and-white images, exposing a child adopted internationally adopted child to her culture – though in a superficial way), but not exactly effectively. _Happy Family_ did not seem to be to be so self-consciously *about* adoption; the characters seemed more unique and real to me.
    Yet, even though I think _Happy Family_ was more about the characters than about adoption, I do also think the author was commenting on international adoption (esp. with the kidnapping incident). While Jane clearly wanted a child, she also seemed to have a China fetish that Lily was helping to fulfill. (And I also think the book was about the development of Hua’s character.)
    One random thing… I didn’t think it was realistic that Jane would refer to Lily’s birth parents as her “real parents.”
    How about the Evan character??? He also somehow fits into what the author is saying about white Americans and their attitudes toward Chinese culture and people…

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