BKMT READING GUIDES

The Love Wife
by Gish Jen

Published: 223
Hardcover : 400 pages
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A BookPage Notable Title
From the highly praised author of "Mona in the Promised Land" and "Who's Irish?" comes a generous, funny, explosive novel about the new "half-half" American ...
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Introduction

A BookPage Notable Title
From the highly praised author of "Mona in the Promised Land" and "Who's Irish?" comes a generous, funny, explosive novel about the new "half-half" American family.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

BLONDIE / The day Lan came, you could still say whose family this was--Carnegie's and mine.

We had three children. Two beautiful Asian girls--or should I say Asian American--Wendy, age nine, and Lizzy, age fifteen, both adopted; and one bio boy, Bailey, age thirteen months. Carnegie's ancestry being Chinese, and mine European, Bailey was half half, as they say--or is there another term by now? With less mismatch in it--'half half' having always spoken to me more of socks than of our surprise child, come to warm the lap of our middle years. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

Questions from the Publisher's Reading Guide:

1. At the beginning of the novel, Blondie says, “At least I had my family. Every happy family has its innocence. I suppose, looking back, this was ours” (p. 4). Is her belief in the sanctity of the family shared by the others? In what ways does her upbringing and her position within the Bailey family as “the throwback, a plain Jane who seemed to have no part in certain family games” (p. 70) influence her point of view?

2. How does Mama Wong’s Alzheimer’s affect Carnegie’s feelings about her? In what ways do his reactions offer insights not only into her character but into Carnegie’s as well? Compare his feelings and the way he expresses them to Blondie’s blunter observations about her mother-in-law. Are the differences based purely on their relationship to Mama Wong and her treatment of each of them? How does Jen capture the poignancy, the frustration, and even the humor of dealing with an Alzheimer’s patient?

3. Several decades separate the arrivals of Mama Wong and Lan in America. What insights do their backgrounds provide into the position of women in Chinese society both before and after the Communist takeover? Using Carnegie’s retelling of Mama Wong’s story (p. 30) and Lan’s thoughts as she settles into the household (pp. 39-50) and her description of her life in China (p. 95—102) as a starting point, discuss the ways in which their expectations and their experiences as immigrants differ and what they have in common. What do their comments about life in America bring to light about the changes in this country during that same period?

4. When Mama Wong dies, Carnegie says, “What a large word, ‘mother’; how puny its incorporation. Like the words ‘her family,’ meaning me. It was at times like this that I missed having a father, but not only for myself. I missed my mother having a husband . . .” (pp. 177—78) How does this reflection encapsulate Carnegie’s state of mind and his emotional awakening? What impact do his memories of childhood, his mother’s memorabilia, and the discovery of the existence of the family book [pp. 189-193] have on his relationship with Blondie? How does Jen make these changes apparent?

5. Lizzy is in many ways a typical teenager trying to establish her own identity. To what extent does her image of herself as “mixed-up soup du jour” (p. 8) help to explain her almost immediate attachment to Lan? Does Lan take advantage of Lizzy’s confusion in an unfair or calculated way?

6. What does Wendy’s perspective add to our understanding of the family dynamics? What particular passages or incidents show that she, as Lan tells her, “See not only with your eyes but with your heart” (p. 90)? What effect does the fact that her adoption fits a more normal pattern than Lizzy’s and that her origins are relatively clear have on the way she is treated by others and on her sense of herself?

7. Blondie asks herself, “Were we adopting this child [Wendy] for her good or for ours?” (p. 120) What does this imply about parenthood? Is it as relevant to the decision to have a child of one’s own as it is to adopting a child?

8. What is the significance of Blondie’s assertion, “I had always drawn strength from the fact that my hair next to Lizzy’s should be a picture that challenged the heart. Now I drew on it purposefully, the way other women drew on the knowledge that they were intelligent or thin. I had had the heart to take in these children, after all. Had I not loved them deeply and well, as if they were from the beginning my own?” (p. 133). Does her description of Bailey’s birth (p. 156) cast a different light on her feelings?

9. Is Blondie’s uneasiness about Lan’s claims on the children’s affections unusual? What distinguishes Lan’s role in the household from the usual interactions between a family and the people who care for their children? In what ways do Lan’s personality and her judgments (p. 136, for example), as well as Carnegie’s and Blondie’s attitudes, contribute to the ambiguous nature of the relationship?

10. Does Lan’s presence in the household alter Blondie and Carnegie’s marriage in a fundamental way, or does it simply throw into relief differences that existed all along? To what extent is Carnegie’s attraction to Lan (pp. 142—44) attributable to misgivings about his marriage? Is the unraveling of the Wongs’ marriage inevitable or does it confirm Blondie’s suspicion that Mama Wong “would send us, from her grave, the wife [Carnegie] should have married” (p. 195)?

11. What personal ambitions did Lan bring to the United States? Is her drive and desire to make the most of herself admirable or opportunistic and self-serving? How complicit is she in alienating Blondie from the family? What messages does she convey in the lessons she gives the girls in Chinese language and culture (pp. 203, 215—16, for example)? What do her involvement with Shang (pp. 285—309) and her marriage to Jeb Su reveal about Lan’s priorities?

12. Throughout the novel, Blondie and Gabriela exchange e-mails (pp. 131, 141, 202, 219, 307). What insight do these provide that is missing from Blondie’s longer, more detailed accounts of events? What does this friendship provide Blondie that is lacking in her relationship with Carnegie and with her siblings and father?

13. Why does Blondie’s effort to reclaim her family by becoming a stay-at-home mom ultimately fail? Beyond the practical implications, what is the importance of her decision to move out of the house?

14. The book ends on an ambivalent note. Why are the final words Wendy’s and how do they relate to the themes of the novel?

15. Each character presents a personal chronicle of the events in their lives, sometimes commenting on or correcting the perceptions of the others. How would you describe the tone of each character’s commentary? For example, what qualities do Carnegie’s portrait of Blondie (pp. 20—21) and his “selected preconceptions, wholly inexcusable” about Lan (p. 12) have in common?

16. How do the juxtaposition of viewpoints and the mixture of tones effect the way the story unfolds and your reactions to the individual characters? Which one, if any, dominates the narrative? Does a particular character stand out as the emotional center of the novel? How might a reader’s own experience, gender, or background influence their sympathies for the various characters?

17. Gish Jen’s previous books–Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, and Who’s Irish?–established her as a funny and incisive portrayer of the way people of various backgrounds, cultures, and ambitions search for a place for themselves in America. How does The Love Wife extend and add twists to the notion of America as a nation of immigrants? Has the need to assimilate become less important to recent immigrants than it was to past generations or has assimilation become redefined?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "OK to read on own but not worthy of book club discussion"by nadjaj (see profile) 10/17/07

Huge disparity in group ratings: overall 5.6, range from 3 to 7.5. Reads a little like an after school special, except for the good insights on American/Chinese culture.

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