What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan (NetGalley Review)

What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (July 10, 2018)
Description from the publisher:
After years of chasing the American dream, the Zhen family has moved back to China. Settling into a luxurious serviced apartment in Shanghai, Wei, Lina, and their daughter, Karen, join an elite community of Chinese-born, Western-educated professionals who have returned to a radically transformed city. 
One morning, in the eighth tower of Lanson Suites, Lina discovers that a treasured ivory bracelet has gone missing. This incident sets off a wave of unease that ripples throughout the Zhen household. Wei, a marketing strategist, bows under the guilt of not having engaged in nobler work. Meanwhile, Lina, lonely in her new life of leisure, assumes the modern moniker taitai-a housewife who does no housework at all. She is haunted by the circumstances surrounding her arranged marriage to Wei and her lingering feelings for his brother, Qiang. Sunny, the family's housekeeper, is a keen but silent observer of these tensions. An unmarried woman trying to carve a place for herself in society, she understands the power of well-kept secrets. When Qiang reappears in Shanghai after decades on the run with a local gang, the family must finally come to terms with the past and its indelible mark on their futures.
From a silk-producing village in rural China, up the corporate ladder in suburban America, and back again to the post-Maoist nouveaux riches of modern Shanghai, What We Were Promised explores the question of what we owe to our country, our families, and ourselves.

This was a slow burn of a novel, that centered mostly on each character's internal life and struggles. The missing bracelet at the beginning of the novel had me intrigued. Was it truly missing? Was it an attempt to replace the maid, or does it have value? What kind of value? The hint of a secret between Lina and her brother in law Qiang is also hinted at in the very first pages. Then the bulk of the book delves into the past and the lives led by each of the characters up until the present day, full of immersive detail while examining contrasting themes of those with money and power, and those without. Who has more freedom or happiness, really? 
The narrative lingered a bit longer than I would have liked with expats Lina and Wei's history, ostensibly the main characters. I found Sunny the maid's story much more interesting, and would have liked to spend more time with her and Little Cao, the Zhen's surprisingly multifaceted driver. Perhaps because she was the working class observer, the more relatable character in the beginning. Though, overall, I was impressed with Tan's ability to create an entire cast of characters that I was rooting for, major flaws and all. The various relationship dynamics were very compelling, even some of the briefest interactions were the most impactful, as with the tenuous father daughter connection between Karen and Wei.
"Why do our minds fixate on the kinds of love we're not getting instead of the kinds of love we are? We expect it to be the thing we want it to be. And we're blind to every other form of it."
In the end, the secrets and realizations that are made gave it a highly satisfying ending with a lot of food for thought about family, loyalty, freedom and finding a place in the world. I would highly recommend this as a read alike for another summer debut, A Place for Us with very similar themes on family, choices and culture. 
Many thanks to NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company for the complimentary digital review copy!


Post a Comment