In 1968 in New York-area suburbia, Mona Chang decides to become a Jew. This news does not go down well with her parents, Chinese immigrants who run a pancake shop and can't understand Mona's desire to be Jewish anymore than they can understand their older daughter Callie's desire to be more Chinese. But perhaps the worst repercussion of Mona's conversion is that it attracts the attention of a college-dropout psuedo-intellectual named Seth, who is desperately beguiled by what he perceives as Mona's radical desire to thwart the establishment. Over one confusing and character-building summer, Mona, Seth, Mona's friend Barbara, Callie, Callie's roommate Naomi, Barbara's cousin Evie, Mona's parent's restaurant's cook Alfred, and a whole bunch of other people have a whole lot of adventures and misadventures in Suburbia. During a summer when race and race relations are the country's biggest news, Chinese, Black, Wasp, and Jewish must decide whether they like one another, how much, and why.
I liked this book, particularly for the writing. Gish Jen is a relentlessly original writer, and one of the charms about the book is the language of the narration, which mimics something between the second-language English an immigrant might speak and hallmarks of American Jewish Language, which I thought was terribly clever of her. Mona is also the kind of sixteen-year-old you can't help but wish you had been, with enough presence of mind and mouth to talk back smartly to people and a set of over-thought values that lead her into familiar shenanigans.
I did think, however, that an awful lot was tackled in this book, maybe more than the premise could comfortably contain, and there were times when I felt like I was reading more of a fable or a satire than a novel. The race conversations came on strong and many and were a little hard for me to read, and the ending made me a little sad. I'm glad I read it, but I do wish it had been a little less densely packed.