Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ishiguro's a hard act to follow

I picked up Happy Family on a whim at a recent trip to Barnes with a coupon in hand. Despite the fact that I try my best to shy away from writing about Asian/Asian-American themes, I still like reading about them.

Happy Family is a story about a young immigrant woman from China who becomes a nanny for a little Chinese girl who is adopted by American parents. The woman is painted as detached from her environment, never quite fitting in, and always somehow looking for something tangible that connects her with others. This is illustrated by a penchant for stealing petty things from people's homes, touching their possessions, sleeping with inappropriate men, etc. A lonesomeness pervades. And yet she finds a connection with this little girl who she learns to love.

I thought this book was okay. The premise intrigued me, but for some reason, the execution failed to strike a chord in me as strongly as I would have liked. I think the problem may be that I found the protagonist a little bit too detached and therefore her flaws left me feeling unsympathetic for the most part. When at the end (spoiler) she chooses to kidnap the child, I only felt exasperation, even though I know I was supposed to feel at least some empathy for her situation. Any sympathy I felt for her was on an intellectual level, because I knew the author intended for me to feel sympathetic, but it never quite made it there. Instead, Hua came off to me as a bit bumbling, having made poor decisions, and lacking sense. I wanted very much to feel badly for her, but everytime she went around poking around in people's drawers and doing things she shouldn't be, I wanted to shake her and tell her THAT was the reason she didn't really have friends, not because of some otherness of being an immigrant. I never found her likable enough. In fact, I wondered what Jane (the mother) even saw in her enough to want to make her a nanny. I was unconvinced by that development, as I was by many of the relationships portrayed in here. Such as even the sleazy one night stand with that Evan character. Even that felt unbelievable to me.

On the other hand, it's not like this book is poorly written or even that the premise and plot is off. I found myself flipping through the pages easily and fast, but I just never found that I connected with the characters. They didn't resonate with me. Hua gave me some minor irritation, but that was about it.

Perhaps part of it is that after reading Ishiguro's book and recognizing the deliberateness of his use of first-person narrator, it's impossible not to notice how less effectively it is done here. Another bone I have to pick is that Hua "imagines" scenarios (especially towards the end, the lengthy description that shows what Jane and Richard must be going through, detail by detail as an imagined scene) too often and to a point where I felt it was simply a trick to delineate what happened outside of Hua's knowledge (ie: Jane and Richard freaking out) while still maintaining the first-person narrator. I was not much of a fan of that.

All in all, it was a fast read, and not a bad read, but not as resonating or affecting as I would have liked.

1 drops:

moonrat said...

I've read a bunch of reviews of this book recently. I was particularly interested because (correct me if I'm wrong?) I think the author works in publishing and somehow managed to get a book deal anyway. It inspired me to think there might be hope even for the most hopeless of us (read: me).

But most of the reviews, like yours, have been lukewarmish.

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