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A Review of Wendy Lee’s Happy Family

Wendy Lee’s plainly titled first novel, Happy Family, is ultimately a character study revolving around Hua Wu, who arrives to the United States seeking a new life. In this respect, the novel already treads the familiar ground of the immigrant narrative in which the working class immigrant struggles to fulfill the American Dream. Of course, there is always a larger back-story to any successful character study and Lee does provide Hua with enough depth and texture to pull off a compelling and psychologically complex narrative even if the storytelling itself remain rather conventionally told.

Hua Wu arrives under false pretenses, feigning pregnancy in order to gain asylum, for her supposed second and unborn child, a child which would likely be aborted given the “One Child” China policy. From Fuzhao Province, Hua Wu feels quickly out of place working at a Chinese restaurant where most everyone else speaks Cantonese. One day, she observes a Caucasian woman playing with an Asian toddler at the park and she discovers that the woman is in actuality the child’s mother. Indeed, as she comes to learn, the toddler has been adopted from China. At this point, it becomes fairly clear that Hua Wu will become involved in the lives of the mother, Jane Templeton-Walker, and her adopted daughter, Lily. Given the recent and welcome spate of adoptee cultural productions, Lee’s Happy Family queries the nature of kinship. Once Hua becomes the nanny to Lily and slowly integrated into the Templeton-Walker household, she realizes that all is not exactly as it may seem. Indeed, the idyllic life she perceives is shattered in nuanced and complex ways. Interspersed with this major storyline, the narrative is interrupted occasionally for memories that grant us a larger perspective into the reasons why Hua really immigrated to the United States and how she comes to become so attached to a girl like Lily. These memories are absolutely vital in tracking this novel into its own particular trajectory, one that really records and considers the problematics of modernization for Chinese women.

Though kinship remains the most obvious thematic trope of the novel, the conclusion seems too largely understated given the strange “prologue” in which a letter is written to Lily by Hua. One immediately returns to this letter because it has greater resonance by the conclusion of the story, but the readers are ultimately unsure of how exactly the trajectory occurs that connects the last lines of the story to Hua’s movement to California, where she has been crashing on the couch of a friend. Because of this gap, there are a number of plot points left dangling, some of which even involve the police and how Hua manages to move across the United States with extremely limited financial capacity.

And yet, even given some of these elisions, the novel succeeds in painting a memorable character, granted enough roundedness to seem unique, while possessing flawed personality traits that make her approachable, even likable. The novel is also careful about considering the importance of class in immigrant fictions as her working class status clashes markedly with the Templeton-Walker’s decidedly upper middle-class bourgeois living. Further, Lee’s prose is especially fluid and consistent, all important in upholding the authenticity of the first-person narrative voice.

Happy Family is ultimately an auspicious debut; one wonders with much delight and anticipation what future literary terrains that Wendy Lee will engage



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A Veritable Literary Feast

April 2019

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