By TESSA YANG
In Gish Jen’s second novel, Mona in the Promised Land, protagonist Mona Chang grows up in Scarsdale, New York, struggling to establish her own place in the vibrant counterculture of the 1960s. Most of the tension in the story derives from issues of racial and ethnic identity. Mona is the first “Oriental” to appear in her predominantly Jewish school district. It is a badge she wears with great pride, even as her mother denounces her for failing to be a “good Chinese daughter” like her older sister. To her parents’ further dismay, Mona decides to convert to Judaism as a teenager, earning her the nickname “Changowitz” among friends. The conversion process, presented early-on in the story, raises some of the novel’s central questions: How does one go about adopting a certain identity? Is it possible to be true to multiple cultures, or does assimilation inevitably involve renunciation, an abandonment of old values and old ways of life?
My favorite aspect of this novel was probably the sophisticated layering of different identity conflicts. Though the quest to carve out a niche as a Jewish-Chinese-American could probably fill a book by itself, Jen presents us with many characters striving to balance different versions of themselves. Alfred, for example, a cook at the Changs’ pancake restaurant, becomes Mona’s window into the foreign territory of Black Power and the struggles of lower-class existence. Another memorable figure is Seth Mandel, a self-proclaimed hippie whose blind idealism fights to sustain itself in a climate of deep social divisions. Then there is Callie, Mona’s older sister, who goes away to college only to return home more Chinese than her own parents. Each of these side plots deals with real conflict, yet all are flavored with enough humor and slip-ups so as to be almost whimsical in nature.
I thought the writing in this book was excellent. Jen brings to the novel the same polished prose and witty dialogue that make her short stories so enjoyable.
Unfortunately, this grace on the line was not matched by an elegant story arc. While the set-up of the different conflicts was fascinating, the resolutions felt trite and overly convenient. I was particularly bothered by the epilogue, in which the different plotlines were so tidily brought together. I felt as though I were watching a movie on the Hallmark channel. However, I would still recommend this book, on the grounds that the majority of it proved entertaining and was interesting. Moreover, perhaps the warm ending I found so troublesome would actually delight a different sort of reader.