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What We Were Promised

Review

What We Were Promised

A tightly crafted debut wrought with the measured voice of an expert craftsperson, Lucy Tan’s WHAT WE WERE PROMISED is an exquisite exploration of class, family and self.

The Zhen family --- high-powered marketing strategist Wei; Lina, a Chinese-language teacher turned taitai (a housewife so wealthy she doesn’t need to do housework); and their adolescent daughter, Karen --- spent decades chasing the American dream. Wei and Lina grew up in a small town, but all four of their parents passed away years ago in one tragic accident. Now, they return to a fresh landscape of post-Maoist China and situate themselves among the Western-educated upper-class elites of Shanghai.

Wei always thought he’d be an engineer, but now finds himself so deeply ingrained in the uncomfortable intricacies of marketing --- even hosting a TV game show to encourage new hires for his company. Karen can’t help but still think of the U.S., where she attends school nine months out of the year, as home. And Lina is listing, socializing with other taitais and losing herself in the minutiae of their culture and gossip.

"A tightly crafted debut wrought with the measured voice of an expert craftsperson, Lucy Tan’s WHAT WE WERE PROMISED is an exquisite exploration of class, family and self."

The patterns of their lives are disrupted by two instances: the disappearance of Lina’s treasured ivory bracelet, and a phone call from Qiang --- Wei’s brother, long since lost to gangs from the province. Lina knows more about Qiang and his choices than she’s ever let on, and has made a conscious effort not to think of Qiang for many, many years. Now he’s back, and Wei and Lina must confront who they used to be to him and who they’ve become in the interim.

Sunny used to be a cleaner for the Zhens’ apartment complex, but after the disappearance of the bracelet, a series of circumstances lands her a plush position as their housekeeper. Single, self-sustaining and with a strong sense of pride, Sunny is a sharp and sensitive observer of the tensions running through her employers. She’s also very much her own character, and her own protagonist.

Tan’s command of this story is strikingly masterful. The reader understands that the relationship between Lina and Qiang is a fraught one, rife with secrets and effects that have rippled throughout the Zhen family for decades, but Tan maintains a steady, quietly fierce tension that builds through the entire novel. She also hits a gorgeous balance between the domestic and the socially critical, exploring conflicts between the rural and urban in China and China’s relationship to Western economy and culture.

Wei’s company essentially sells American products to the Chinese. Qiang confronts him about how this furthers the conception that China is a “contract country” --- producing other countries’ ideas, for other countries, instead of developing their own. Tan evokes a sharp exploration of culture, capitalism and their intersections through the Zhen family and Sunny, always maintaining a powerful, clear balance.

Tan’s writing is in itself a triumph. Her sentences are sure and clean, with layers of depth. Her words are chosen precisely, making for arresting reading. In WHAT WE WERE PROMISED, she crafts a page-turning narrative that is at once macro and micro, full of heart and wisdom. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on July 27, 2018

What We Were Promised
by Lucy Tan

  • Publication Date: July 10, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316437182
  • ISBN-13: 9780316437189