Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok
Published in 2014 by Hudson Street Press
My copy: Library
Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (American-born Chinese), Charlie s entire life has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works miserably as a dishwasher.
But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds.
A few years back I read Jean Kwok’s first novel Girl in Translation and really enjoyed it, and this – her second book – had been on my wishlist for a while.
I loved the start of this book, which introduces us to Charlie who, despite being in her early 20s, still lives in a tiny apartment with her father and 11-year-old sister. Life is a struggle for Charlie. She works as a dishwasher alongside her father, who is a well-known noodle maker. But she is clumsy and didn’t do well at school, and her prospects seem limited.
I enjoyed the descriptions of the family’s life, the unpleasant work in the restaurant and Charlie’s father’s reluctance to let his daughter’s lead a western life. And I also felt sorry for Charlie, who is awkward and unhappy and feels as if she is going nowhere – until she finally gets a break by landing a job at a local dance studio. Hiding her new occupation from her father, life finally starts for Charlie as she makes new friends, and starts to find herself – and her feet as a dancer.
This novel brings east and west together, and it does so very well. Charlie’s struggle with her old and new lives is at the heart of the novel, and this also comes to the fore when her sister falls ill and her father tries lots of traditional Chinese methods of making her better. I must admit I did prefer these parts of the book to the sections set in the dance studio – although I think those who are interested in dance would enjoy these more than I did! I also wasn’t completely taken by the romance element of the book.
But despite this, overall I liked this novel a lot – the characters were interesting and I really liked the ways in which Charlie changed throughout the book, while dealing with the conflicts of being Chinese while living in the US.
My rating: 7 out of 10