02 Oct / Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok
Every once in a while, a pretty-much-happily-after novel is just what the heart needs. The ears get a treat here, too, if you choose to go aural, as narrator Angela Lin emotes with just enough angst blended with the growing assurance of fulfilling self-discovery. Like her engaging debut novel, Girl in Translation
, bestselling author Jean Kwok mines multi-generational conflict and cultural disconnect to create another emotionally satisfying literary treat.
Charlie Wong, the older daughter of one of New York Chinatown’s best noodle makers, doesn’t want to wash dishes for the rest of her life. Unlike her gifted tween sister, Charlie never had much of an academic future, but escaping the kitchen finally becomes possible when she’s hired as an uptown dance studio receptionist.
Incompetent – quite possibly because she’s dyslexic – she’s too soon fired from the front desk, but surprisingly ensconced in the classroom to teach. Channeling her late mother – once a famed Beijing ballerina – Charlie sheds her ugly-duckling awkwardness and begins her transformation toward confident young woman able to challenge traditions, overcome gendered expectations, and fight against familial restraints – not only for herself but for her sister who literally falls inexplicably ill. Discovering first love – forbidden it may be – provides the sizzle that turns Charlie’s mambo from mere dance step to passionate performance.
That you won’t find too many surprises here is actually a good thing. So you might stumble on a few narrative missteps (frazzled secretary to professional dancer in a single lesson? never-before noticed dance-DNA? rather obvious whodunnit?), but just believe and keep reading. Kwok herself spent three years as a professional ballroom dancer between her Harvard BA and her Columbia MFA, experience she puts to effective use on the page. Waltz, cha-cha, foxtrot, swing, tango … we could all use a little fancy footwork now and then that rewards us with such gratifying joy. At least for the almost-400 pages here (or 13 hours tickling your ears), trust in Kwok’s assured, gentle rhythms and let her lead the way.