The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang

It’s hard to even summarize The Wangs vs The World because so much is thrown in that the book doesn’t seem to cohere. I shall try: Charles Wang grew up in China but headed to the United States as a young man. On the plane, he gets motion sick, throws up in the bathroom, and then notices the bar of soap in there contains “urea” — urine. For reasons I can’t remember, Charles has loads of access to urine in China, so he starts a cosmetics empire in Los Angeles. After marrying a beautiful Chinese woman, he has three children, all of whom he loves. But when the third child is still a baby, his wife dies in an absurd helicopter crash.

Back in China, a school girl who knows about Charles’s success flies to the United States with her own plan to marry him now that Wife #1 is dead. She does, and the Wang family lives a life of careless luxury in Bel-Air for a couple of decades.

Then, Charles makes a poor business deal and loses everything. We start the novel with his house, vehicles, and factories being repossessed. Calling his eldest daughter, Saina, who has lives in upstate New York, he tells her what happened and that he’s road tripping to her place, picking up his son, Andrew, from university and youngest, Grace, from boarding school on the way. Stepmother “Babs” is coming, of course, though they’re driving an old car that wasn’t repossessed that belonged to the first wife. The car has two chapters narrated from “her” point of view in addition to chapters with points of view alternating between Charles, Babs, Saina, Andrew, and Grace.

We read The Wangs vs. The World for my second digital book club session. I voted for Chang’s novel because I love me a good road trip. I come from a long line of road tripping people. The food, the hotels or campgrounds, the cramped space in the vehicle, the arguments over windows up or down, radio on or off and which station, getting lost and yelling over a paper map — I remember all of these things vividly. Yet, Chang’s novel was a huge disappointment to me. All those details prominent in a road trip that I remember are absent. Instead, the characters each ponder their absurd (to me) lives.

All five main characters — Charles, Babs, Saina, Andrew, and Grace — felt so unnatural that it was hard to think of them as human. They each had their own personal dramas going on, but none was used to create a cohesive story. Maybe because her mother died in an accident long before Grace was old enough to make memories, she’s obsessed with suicide for about two chapters. Possibly because his father always cheats on his wives, Andrew — handsome, charming college student Andrew — has decided to save his virginity for true love and ends up doing things like masturbating with ketchup and getting almost naked with hot co-eds. He wants to be a stand-up comedian but has zero sense of comic artistry, saying things on stage like, “So. . . I’m Asian.”

Saina became a famous artist (easy to do with an inheritance to fall back on) who was engaged to a dopey hipster artist whom I could barely stand. Saina does things like break up with her next boyfriend because she’s “supposed to,” which makes her come off as simple. Saina is hard to tolerate, and her recent scandalous art exhibit — photoshopping beautiful women in war zone photos onto images of runways — seemed unrelated to the overall. . . whatever was going on.

And Charles. It’s 2008 and he’s obsessed with the land his family lost in WWII to the communists. He’s never seen this land, but it’s somewhere in China, and he wants it back. This man thinks he can own the world, and that’s just a big “Ew, no” from me. Such hubris sucks away my sympathy faster than a Dyson set on a pile of dog hair.

Charles could feel himself sagging with middle-aged defeat, a loser who lacked the hot-blooded need to wrestle America to the ground and take her milk money, who never had the balls to flip his father’s shame [not getting back the land in China] into a triumphant empire, who marched obediently towards death and hid from life and always chose the wrong path.

Overall, not one character made me care about them. I might have cared about Charles’s search for the land in China if I knew why he cared so much. Having “the balls” (gag me) to act like an elementary school bully stealing milk money — entitled, basically — just doesn’t do it for me.

Even then, the plot had no sense of direction, so I wasn’t sure where to turn my gaze. Chang’s writing wanders from one situation to another, and I felt like I was reading four different books: each of the children’s stories and then Charles and Bab’s could have been their own novels. Rather, Chang appears to throw in random elements, hoping her Jell-O will still set despite adding pineapple and mango. The recession, art, history, entitlement, comedy, fashion, wealth, adoption, race, sex, education. . . Chang puts in too much to realistically handle. Unfortunately, had this not been a book club pick, I would not have finished it, and I fear that The Wangs vs. The World, published in 2016, rode on the coattails of the more famous Crazy Rich Asians books.

38 comments

  1. Wow, this book sounds like a lot. This very loosely reminds me of the TV show Arrested Development, in that a family that got rich from potentially-shady business dealings suddenly loses it all, and god forbid they have to live like the rest of the world!! But Arrested Development never takes itself too seriously, and makes fun of the characters for their entitled way of thinking. I probably wouldn’t like this book very much either, but I did like your review of it.

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  2. You do a great adverse review Melanie. No shouting, just lots of well-justified opinions. And getting upset because you grandfather lost the family farm, what a waste of energy. Meanwhile, your post arrived simultaneously with my daily dose of HuffPost. I can’t believe what I read! Roll on Nov 3.

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    • I definitely felt shouty in my Why We Can’t Sleep Review, but this book is more the victim of poor editing than elitism. In fact, the author visited our online book club and noted that almost nothing was edited — and I remember thinking, “Yes, I can tell.”

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  3. Interesting stuff – maybe I won’t keep this on my wishlist. I did love this sentence in your review: “Rather, Chang appears to throw in random elements, hoping her Jell-O will still set despite adding pineapple and mango.” Genius!

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    • Hahaha, thank you, Liz. Yeah, this book didn’t work for me at all. I wanted to edit the crap out of it. Incidentally, the author noted that when it was picked up it was almost untouched in the editing process.

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    • Definitely. And as a library employee, Laila, I want to note that we’ve had three different online book club picks and so far all three authors have agreed to meet. If you have anything to do with programming or book clubs, consider reaching out to authors. They’re really willing to meet with people right now.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. yikes, sounds like too much going on here. And the old ‘wealthy family loses is all’ trope is getting a bit old for me. It’s great fodder for humour but it’s got to having something else going for it. Also, your Dyson quote is hilarious. They do make great products though.

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    • The hardest part is we read this novel for a book club that was meeting once per week, and so I had to read these characters slowly. They were just annoying humans who reacted unpredictably in a way that made me think, “What fresh hell is this?”

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  5. I had never heard of this book before. I have no interest in it. But I am curious about the author’s joining the online book club. How do they participate? Do they do a Q and A, or introduction, or actually listen to the comments about the book itself? Is this book club thing on zoom or something else?
    x The Captain

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    • Because everyone was missing social interaction, the book club was started and met once per week instead of the usual once per month. We’d get together on Google Meet. Then, the author would join the Google Meet the last meeting. The librarian led the conversation, but some of us would ask questions. It’s definitely not the time to critique a book since the author is doing something for free, but asking questions is always appropriate.

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  6. Yikes, I’m glad I never picked this one up. It sounds all over the place. I felt like your sentiments also capture what I felt for On Beauty, which I just finished—it tackles a lot of themes, but things just didn’t cohere. I’ve read your previous comments and saw that it was barely edited, which makes sense.

    Also: “masturbating with ketchup” ?!?!?!?! That isn’t a thing, is it? Re Charles and the land, I can sort of get his obsession with it—for some reason, all the Chinese-Filipinos I know in my circle (my father included) have some hang-ups over ancestral land that wasn’t passed over to them. However, the land is HERE, not in China; and the way you describe Charles’s desire to own it sounds more like a very distasteful form of entitlement.

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    • I’d never heard of anyone using ketchup as lube, so I think it’s unique to Andrew’s experience. I hadn’t realized there are people in the Philippians also concerned about ancestral lands. Do you mind if I ask what your father says/thinks?

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      • Hmm, ancestral lands is probably not the correct term—more like the land they’ve inherited. It was very difficult to own land here back then since the Chinese were discriminated against, so my grandfather and father had to change surnames to own land. (They’re four brothers in all and they all have different surnames, lol.) Their livelihood also depended on it, and it was understood that land was also a sort of heirloom to be passed down to us. One of my friend’s families owns land that’s been in their family since the Spanish era (~1800s). So there’s a lot of family history and sentimental and practical value attached to land. Personally, though, I’m not sure how much they’d care about land if it’s all the way in China… maybe if the family history is significant, they would.

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        • Oh, wow! Gil, thanks so much for sharing! I haven’t read or learned much about the Philippians. Do you have any books by authors who are Filipino or Filipino-American that you would recommend? Novels or nonfiction — something you enjoyed?

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          • Thanks for being curious! 😄

            Hmmm, I enjoyed Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress, a short story collection, and Alex Gilvarry’s From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. I also liked Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, but her prose style can be very… trippy. I strongly suspect she was high while writing them, and I’d say it’s not for everyone. I haven’t found Chinese-Filipino authors yet, but Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians portrays our culture pretty accurately (minus the crazy rich part, lol)—like the Protestant Bible studies, the large extended family, the languages used, etc. My friends and I were having a field day when it came out.

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  7. This book sounds a bit like a dumpster fire, honestly. 🤷🏻‍♀️ I don’t know anyone else who has read this book, but I remember it was super hyped when it came out. I’m so disappointed that the key road trip elements were missing. I’ve found that most road trip-focused books often omit those critical details, but when you read a book that magically contains a road trip as a plot point those details are included. I want to hear about how greasy those french fries were in that crappy diner you stopped at and how you hated them at the moment and crave them now. Those are the best details.

    What did your book group think of this book? Were discussion general on the positive side or dumpster fire side?

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    • A couple of women loved this book, but most of us just kind of smiled and nodded, which always suggests to me that we’re being polite. The group leader acknowledged that the novel wasn’t quite what she wanted it to be, which I hear as basically saying she didn’t enjoy it. No one wants to bag on a novel too hard because the leader chooses two books for us to vote on, so either way it feels like you’re making a judgement about her selection, even though she hadn’t read the novel beforehand.

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      • Interesting. Is the leader always the same person? When I participate in library-hosted book clubs the librarians who facilitate the discussion always select the books. It’s based on the attendees tastes, theme of the book group (if one exists) and what the library has enough copies of. I never feel bad telling them I didn’t enjoy the book because I don’t think they are particularly close to the book selection. But, then again, I’m never afraid of telling people I don’t like their books. XD

        Will you be participating again in the future?

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        • We just started a new meeting last night for The Turner House, which I tried on audio late last year and DNF’d. Turns out, it was just not a good fit for audio; I’m enjoying the text version. It’s always the same librarian because this book club did not exist before the pandemic. She was getting lonely and asked if she could do it, and here we are, on our 3rd book. We meet once per week (and for the first book it was every other day, which I totally needed at that time in the pandemic). She gives us two choices from Hoopla, because Hoopla licenses don’t restrict how many people can check out the book at the same time, just how many times total it can be checked out.

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          • Oooh, I like that the librarian has chosen to utilize Hoopla for this. That’s very smart, considering limited resources. It’s been a boon for many of my book clubs.

            I find that this is often the case — a book is either great or not good as an audiobook. There are lots of factors for this (and I would elaborate, but I’m drafting a post about this as we speak…). I am so thankful when people try the other version instead of just giving up. Audiobooks can ruin great books accidentally. I’m so glad you tried again.

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              • I won’t be reading The City We Became for a few years, as it’s the first in a new series (of an undefined number of books). But if enough time passes that we’re close to the end of the series and you want a buddy, I’ll definitely read it with you.

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                • Hmmm…..I love doing Valdemar, but the other day I was thinking about how much time a series takes up on my reading calendar. I’m still reading the S.M. Reine books, but not reviewing each one because they go in order and I don’t think readers would keep up. I used to (believe it or not!!!) avoid series like the plague (or should I say coronavirus now? are we updating our cliches??). I didn’t realize The City We Became was part of a series, though I did see it says Great Cities #1 on Goodreads and thought maybe it was an error.

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                  • It does take up a lot of time on our reading calendars. And on my blog! I enjoy reading series, but other than Valdemar I find them difficult to review. I like the idea of posting a single review for an entire series. I might do that with a few I’ve been reading lately.

                    I’m unclear if Jemisin’s newest series is a traditional series, if you get my drift. I have a feeling these will all be books set in the smae universe, in different cities. She wrote a short story set in New Orleans that I believe is in the same universe. But I cannot find any specific details to indicate if my theory is correct or not — so I’ll be waiting to read this. I still have other Jemisin books to still read, anyway! 🙂

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  8. Finally getting to this review- and you were right! This definitely helped me decide… to never read this book. How disappointing that it seems to include so much and yet remain so unfocused! Interestingly (to me and probably no one else, lol) this one was on my radar long before Crazy Rich Asians, but perhaps you are right about that helping this one out. Sorry you had to slog through such a dud- I hope your book club at least had a lively discussion to make up for the subpar read!

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    • How did The Wangs vs. The World get on your radar first? When I Googled the titles, Wangs was published in 2016 and Crazy Rich Asians in 2013. Do you have any other fun novels by Chinese or Chinese-Americans that you would recommend?

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      • It was a Book of the Month title! Right before I subscribed, when all of their selections looked shiny and perfect…

        These are definitely a bit grittier than The Wangs and Crazy Rich Asians, but I can think of two Chinese-American books you *might* like better than this one! They seem to have more narrative direction, at least. I’m thinking about Severance by Ling Ma, which is a sort of literary apocalyptic book with zombies (they’re not violent, it’s not what you’d expect from a zombie novel)- something of a commentary on the corporate world, where the MC is a Chinese-American woman working for a company that publishes bibles. It’s a wild ride. Maybe not the best pandemic read though! The other is Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, which I didn’t like so much because it didn’t feel like a good fit for the lit prize it was nominated for, but it is an interesting look at immigrant families balancing work and ambition in America. The employees of the main restaurant are sort of a family, even though they’re not all related. I’m not sure these are exactly what you’re looking for, they’re both a bit heavier in theme than I think The Wangs and Crazy Rich Asians are, but they’ve stood out to me in Chinese-American lit!

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        • Oh, those sound exactly like what I’m looking for, Emily! Thank you! I don’t typically read novels like The Wangs or that feel-good sort of genre. Only lately I’ve read more commercially successful fiction, which is weird for me. THANK YOU!

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          • You’re welcome! It’s been a little while since I read them so I hope I’m remembering them accurately and that they’ll be a good fit for you! 🙂

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