Title: What We Were Promised
Author: Lucy Tan
About the book: It’s a debut novel about a family who returns to Shanghai after trying to chase the American dream in the United States.
I received a free copy from Hachette in exchange for an honest review.
First impressions: I felt excited to read a novel about Chinese characters written by a Chinese author. I expected I’d be able to relate.
I love the title and cover page. It took me a few chapters to get into the story though.
Characters: Wei, Lina, and Qiang grew on me. They’re all flawed, but they’re hard to hate. Wei Zhen is married to Lina, but she has feelings for Wei’s brother, Qiang, who left home years ago. Sunny is a housekeeper and later she gets hired by the Zhens to look after their daughter, Karen. The adults have interesting issues to say the least.
“Why do our minds fixate on the kinds of love we’re not getting instead of the kinds of love we are?”
Writing: In both the exposition and dialogue, Tan includes some words written in pinyin, which get repeated throughout the book. I understood most of them. The author offers an English translation or enough context to decipher the meaning. She describes the scenes well, including a lot of detail.
I think the nature of the story calls for more telling than showing. That being said, I would’ve liked more of the latter.
Final thoughts: My favourite part of the story is the ending. The characters confront the past and everything finally made a lot of sense. Overall, I think the novel increased my knowledge of Chinese culture and customs.
I recommend What We Were Promised to fans of contemporary reads about families. If you know Mandarin and pinyin, you’ll recognize certain words in addition to what they mean. Even if you don’t, the writing is still accessible.