Why does every review of The Wangs vs. the World start out with the word ‘hilarious’? This book is worthy of its buzz, it is character rich and … at times … amusing. It is not hilarious in any way. This is not a criticism, I did not expect a book about a Chinese American family driving across country after losing their fortune to be hilarious. I’m just really confused that this is the word the critics are choosing to describe it.
Charles Wang, the patriarch of the book, is a very angry man. He is angry at the Communists who drove him out of China, he is angry at the financial crisis (it is set in 2008) that caused him to lose his riches, and he is angry at his children for turning out so very, very American. When Charles moved to America with very little, he built a cosmetics empire that was wildly successful for many years. He and his wife had three children, and then his wife died and he remarried another woman from China, who never quite took to the role of stepmom. Now those children – Saina, a formerly successful artist now hiding in upstate New York after a disastrous show; Andrew, a TERRIBLE wannabe standup comedian and college student; and Grace, a pampered and spoiled teenager in boarding school – are all disappointing him in different ways. When he loses everything he and his wife are forced to pull Andrew and Grace out of their expensive schools and they embark on a road trip from California, toward Saina in New York.
There is very little plot here – Charles wants to dump everyone off together so that he can fly back to China and reclaim his ancestral lands, which will make everything okay again for some reason. They stop along the way for various reasons and have a few unexpected adventures. The characters are very well drawn and distinctive and much of the book is dialogue which works best when it is between the siblings. One issue I keep seeing brought up is that there is quite a bit of untranslated Chinese in the book. This didn’t personally bother me, but it probably would have if I was more interested in it.
I liked the book, but it was at times very slow and I wasn’t dying to get back to it when I would put it down. It is difficult to make people who are rich and careless endearing, and it never quite got there for me with either of the elder Wangs. It is not a tragedy when rich people are forced to become middle class, especially when they got rich in some not-so-ethical ways. I very much liked both Saina and Grace, even if they were both a bit entitled. Andrew, however, was aggressively irritating to me, and I skipped ahead a bit when the spotlight was on him. The book dragged in the middle but picked up again when Charles and then the rest of the family get to China, and I really enjoyed the ending.
Grade – B-