In her new novel The Love Wife, about the fragile, polyracial Wong family, Jen moves one generational step down the immigrant experience. Those children once fresh off the boat are now grown up, with families of their own, bigger houses, dead parents. But far from being settled by the security of the suburbs, the immigrant's essential question—who am I?—has only been blurred by blended families and interracial marriage. It's not a question that can be answered by biology or by citizenship papers. The Wongs' teenage daughter Lizzy, adopted as an abandoned baby, complains that no one knows exactly who she is or where she comes from: she's "soup du jour." But as The Love Wife opens and the Wongs' connections to each other begin to fray, Jen shows Lizzy is hardly alone—American confusion may be the American identity.
That goes for even the newest arrivals, like Lan, the mainland-Chinese woman whose entry into the Wong family upsets the delicate balance among the novel's leading voice, Chinese-American Carnegie, his Wasp wife Blondie, and their two adopted Asian daughters and Eurasian biological son. Not even Lan knows what she's doing with the Wongs, though everyone knows why she's there. Carnegie's über-Chinese mother arranged for Lan's immigration in her will, and Mama Wong is the sort of person who gets her way, even in death. (Though she has died horribly of Alzheimer's before the story begins, Mama Wong is never far from Carnegie's mind, usually with choice quotes like this: "If you become cook, your mother will commit suicide. Even I am dead I will rise up out of my grave to kill myself.") From the beginning, Blondie rightly suspects Mama Wong's motives, since the older woman never reconciled herself to the marriage. Has Mama Wong set up Lan to be the love wife, a kind of modern concubine who will fit more naturally with Carnegie than Blondie ever could? But admitting that would mean admitting there might be something wrong with the family Blondie made, that her large white body—"an inflatable compared with everyone else"—just doesn't go with a Wong. And that Blondie can't accept.
All of this sets up a championship match of passive-aggressiveness between Lan and Blondie, mainland Chinese versus suburban American mother, with a slightly bemused, slightly excited Carnegie in the middle. With his dry engineer's wit—he compares his "va-va-vavoomy" wife to an Aeroflot plane and means it as a compliment—Carnegie is the closest thing this shifting novel has to a protagonist. (Jen divides the narration among her five characters, each offering rejoinders in separate paragraphs. It's a clever effect, even if it sometimes feels like a staged reading of a new play that is still a revision away from completion.) Carnegie, along with Lizzy and precocious nine-year-old Wendy, is quick to fall under Lan's spell. They love her cooking and hang on Lan's bitter horror stories of life during the Cultural Revolution. As Lan insinuates herself into the family, she seems not to be usurping Blondie so much as taking her rightful place, exactly as Blondie feared. She watches Lan with Carnegie and Lizzy and Wendy, and finds a scene more natural than the one she helped build. She wonders, "Whose family is this?"
The author makes the subtext of that question clear: in an America of blonde Wongs, will the pull of the "natural" undermine what has been constructed by love? Jen is the least heavy-handed of authors, and she lets her characters, in their carefully crafted voices, find their own way out of the identity puzzle she's placed before them. Jen's fans might miss the controlled, sardonic tone of earlier novels like Typical American, but fragments of it still surface, as when Carnegie meditates on prejudice: "Americans believe all racism is a problem. Or at least a lot of Americans. Some, obviously, don't. Seeing as how they're racist."
Humor has long been Jen's stock in trade, but what sets The Love Wife above her earlier work is its emotional breadth, its desire to understand and love all of its disparate characters. It's as if Jen is suggesting that in a blurred and blended world, we'll need open hearts to accept fractured identities, our own and others', instead of being forced to choose one side or the other, the natural or the constructed. After all, as even Mama Wong admits in the end, "nothing is natural.