Chinese American’s debut novel of Chinese expat life a clever examination of memory and what we make of the cards we’re dealt
What We Were Promised, the story of a well-off Chinese couple who move to the US and back again, is full of twists, insights into Chinese culture. and has an ending that reveals hidden truths
What We Were Promised
by Lucy Tan
Delayed gratification can provide great pleasure in a novel. Who hasn’t thrilled to Winston Smith finally saying he loved Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984, or been devastated by the deaths at the end of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men?
But it can also be frustrating, such as when getting to the end of an 800-page Stephen King novel and finding that the horror master has once again been able to contrive a satisfying climax.
Chinese-American Lucy Tan’s first novel, What We Were Promised, brought all this to mind. It seems to be heading in a certain direction for 200 pages, but then the reader finds it’s not all what it seemed.
Many readers will feel cheated, or at least rather miffed. But Tan cleverly provides some twists and in the final act reveals some hidden truths and deeper meanings, which do offer satisfaction.
What We Were Promised is set in China, both in the present day and in Suzhou in a series of flashbacks. Wei and Lina are a doubly transplanted married couple, who move to the United States and then return to Shanghai 10 years later their tween daughter, Karen, when Wei takes an executive position with his digital advertising firm and a role on its reality TV show.
The couple’s new lives as rootless expats surrounded by luxuries and wealth are beautifully captured, with Lina now tediously work free, a tai tai left to enjoy cafes and shopping, and Wei kept too busy to enjoy his new life or the family he says he is working for.
Tan provides an effective counterpoint by taking us through the life of Sunny, a cleaner employed in the couple’s Shanghai building, to whom they offer a job as a nanny during summer holidays. Sunny’s background from Hefei, her outsider’s perspective on the family, and her diligent dedication to anticipating their needs make for an enjoyable modern version of Upstairs Downstairs (or, of course, a minor version of Downton Abbey).
The focus of the novel is the visit of Wei’s younger brother, Qiang, to the couple after being incommunicado for 20 years. Memories are stirred and ghosts of the past are awoken: we learn Qiang was something of a bad boy, and Lina’s former feelings for him are stirred.
Lina worries how she will react to seeing him, and we are taken back to when Wei and Lina were at school, and betrothed to each other. Through Lina’s perspective, we see how different the brothers are, how Wei is cosseted as the scholar with great prospects, while Qiang is rebellious and indifferent to school.
Qiang joins a local gang, rumoured to be involved in theft, gambling and perhaps worse. Yet Lina, kept away from Wei lest they disturb each other’s studies, is drawn to Qiang, with his unselfconsciousness and hints of excitement and danger.
Their relationship blossoms (as far as it can, in these straitened times) and the reader starts to expect that they’ve had some kind of affair. It’s only in the final section, when Lina and Qiang spend a day at the Shanghai Expo, and somehow get locked into the British Pavilion, that the truth finally comes out.
What We Were Promised is nicely written (with some choice imagery, such as “the s***-silt of the Huangpu”), deftly plotted, thoughtful, with telling insights into Chinese life and culture. If you can forgive the narrative misdirection before the surprise resolution, What We Were Promised is a promising novel about memory, connections and what we make of what we have.