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.