I received this copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
“Love saves you, as long as there’s a you to be saved.”
When I started this novel, the first thing I noticed was that it’s incredibly character-driven. Which didn’t bode too well because I didn’t like the characters.
The Wangs vs. The World is a story of loss, privilege and self-discovery that follows the Wang family as they lose their money and possessions during the 2008 US economic crash. After their family home is repossessed, the rest of the Wangs must journey across America to upstate New York where Saina (one of the three children) lives.
In this story we have Charles and Barbra, the father and step-mother, and Saina, Andrew and Grace, the three children. The book begins from Charles’s perspective and, immediately, I found him arrogant and self-satisfied. His belief that everything should bend to his will because of his wealth (even though we’re quickly told the money is gone – and that’s not a spoiler, it says so in the Goodreads synopsis) is tempered only by his desire to earn more money and prove himself in business.
Barbra is the same; despite not having done anything to earn the family’s money (she married Charles for his money and admits this multiple times) she feels entitled to only the finest luxuries and thinks she’s been cheated when the money is gone.
As the story progresses, the two do begin to reconnect with each other and consider the values of love and family, but their character development wasn’t as substantial as the childrens’ and I found their perspectives less interesting.
Saina, Andrew and Grace, on the other hand, had much more interesting POVs. Grace was a bit of a brat at first, but after a near-death experience she begins to see the world in a completely different light, and her character becomes far more likable. Andrew, likewise, has an experience that changes him considerable, and Saina, a fallen artist, makes huge discoveries about the two loves in her life.
Despite the characters being difficult to empathise with at times, it’s clear Jade Chang understands people. The characters’ observations about one another are detailed and their interactions with each other are realistic. The dialogue, too, is naturalistic and delves into the human psyche and the complexities of interpersonal relations. We’re given the sense that each character understands and sees aspects of the others that they themselves don’t. Their relationships seem to be an allegory for the idea that it’s easier to see better from a distance.
As the characters are the lynch pin for this story, the plot takes something of a backseat (driving pun fully intended, since this story is one glorified road trip). The storyline is relatively simple and sometimes jerks between past and present in a jarring manner. Although some of the flashbacks serve to develop the characters further, others seem unnecessary and long.
Similar to the characters, the writing style grew on me and definitely improved as the story progressed. Ideas and themes were expressed better in the second-half of the novel, and Chang’s narrative style became more poetic and passionate.
I should add that if you’re looking for a book with diversity, then this is a good novel to pic up. The Wangs are a Chinese family of first and second generation immigrants, and the story features other Asian and black characters too. But while there’s plenty of racial diversity, I would have liked to see a little more representation of different sexualities.
Although it’s hinted at that Andrew might be bisexual (during a stand-up comedy scene where he says he would have sex with everyone in the crowd), Chang spends most of the story confirming he’s straight. Charles, on the other hand, spends several painful scenes during a wedding reception worrying that his son might dare be gay. While I can see that Chang was trying to represent old-fashioned views of homosexuality,these scenes were still particularly unenjoyable to read and she could have counteracted them by having more characters of diverse sexual orientations.
I also think the critical reviews for this book exaggerated how funny it was. According to Goodreads it’s “A hilarious debut novel”, but I honestly didn’t find it that funny. That doesn’t mean it’s neccesarily bad, but I went into it expecting copious amounts of humour and came out mildly disappointed. Now, I’m pretty easy to make laugh, but there were only really two scenes that had me snorting out loud (and I’m not going to mention them because spoilerssss).
I began this book wishing that I’d picked up a fantasy novel instead, but by the final chapters, I was pleased I’d come on the road trip with the Wangs. Although I still couldn’t find much empathy for Charles and Barbra, my investment in Saina, Andrew and Grace grew throughout the course of the book, and I’d happily pick up more of Jade Chang’s works in the future.