Hattie Kong is a Chinese-American descendent of Confucius who lives in a small New England town. How she got there and why she lives alone at age 68, with three dogs and new neighbors—a mysterious and seemingly broken Cambodian family—is the lovely, slowly unfurling story of the latest novel by best-selling author Gish Jen.
Within the last two years Hattie has lost her husband of 30 years to lung cancer (he never smoked, she keeps marveling) and her best friend, Lee, to breast cancer. Her son Josh is a globetrotting journalist who checks in every couple of months. Some days, she thinks the only reason she’s still around is to feed the dogs. But then the Chhung family moves in next door, and Hattie strikes up an unlikely friendship with Sophy, a 17-year-old with a painful past and an uncertain future.
To make things even more interesting, Hattie’s old boyfriend Carter, now a retired scientist, returns to town looking for a new life. It seems everyone and everything in World and Town is looking for a new life—even the wintry town of Riverlake is trying its best to find spring (Hattie calls fleece the state fabric), and its residents seem to be flocking to worship in a new fundamentalist Christian congregation.
Jen is masterful at mixing keen observation with wit and wisdom, and she is in top form here. The highly charged interactions between Hattie and Carter crackle with their shared history. It’s when Jen steps into the shoes of teenage Sophy, though, that the book really finds its center. Sophy got into enough trouble in her previous town to have been sent to a foster home, and she has just recently reunited with her strict parents, who still fight with the ghosts of Pol Pot. Jen gets every detail of the teenage girl right, down to the “likes” peppering her conversations.
Jen has tackled the unique issues of multicultural Americans in all her previous works, including the wonderful Mona in the Promised Land. In her latest, she is at her best, diving into the pain and promise of coming to America.