Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok
  • ISBN-10: 1594632006 - Hardcover $27.95
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (June 24, 2014), 384 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of the publisher and the Amazon Vine Program.

The blurb:
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 (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world 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, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. 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—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

To be honest, I loved Jean Kwok's debut novel and was both looking forward to her second novel and a little worried that I'd be disappointed. But I loved Mambo in Chinatown!

Set in present day Chinatown NY, Charlie Wong and her family live a life of invisible Chinese immigrants. She works night and day as a dishwasher in a small restaurant where her father makes very popular hand pulled noodles. Her mother had been a famous dancer in the Beijing ballet but when they moved to the US during the Cultural Revolution had to work as a cleaner. When Charlie's mother passed away, Charlie took over raising her little sister, Lisa.

Other reviewers have described it as a beautifully done Cinderella story of sorts, which it is - with all the humor and sympathy that a modern day immigrant NY story can have. I loved that part of it, but what makes Mambo in Chinatown  stand out for me is the added complexity and detail that Jean Kwok brings to her story. She takes us to parts of Chinatown that I'd passed and never known much about - Eastern medicine, the tai chi in the small park, people working the push carts and the tough jobs - and makes them come alive through her sympathetic eyes. Mambo in Chinatown is a story of hope, perseverance, tough odds, and the importance of friendship and family. It's heartwarming and lovely!

About the Author:
Jean Kwok  immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She won early admission to Harvard, where she worked as many as four jobs at a time, and graduated with honors with a B.A. in English and American literature, before going on to earn an MFA in fiction in Columbia.  In between her degrees she worked for three years at the Fred Astaire Studios in New York City.

Her debut novel  Girl in Translation became a New York Times bestseller. It has been published in 17 countries and chosen as the winner of the American Library Association Alex Award, a Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award, an Orange New Writers Book, a National Blue Ribbon Book, a John Gardner Fiction Book Award finalist, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick and an Indie Next Pick, among other honors.   It was featured in the New York Times, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others.  

Jean lives in the Netherlands with her husband and her two sons.

Learn more about Jean here:

I can't resist - just wanted to share the beautiful cover on her debut novel, Girl in Translation
Learn more about Jean here:

1 comment:

  1. After reading Girl In Translation, I cannot wait to read this one.