Sunday, April 3, 2011
World and Town; Gish Jen
Title: World and Town
Author: Gish Jen
Publication Year: 2010
Date Completed: 4/2/2011
Rating: 4/5 stars
In World and Town, Gish Jen introduces us to Hattie Kong, a 68 year old retired Biology teacher who was born in China but came to America after the Communist takeover. Her father was a descendent of Confucius. After Hattie loses both her husband, and her best friend to cancer in a period of two years, she moves to the fictional Vermont town of Riverlake, where she lives in the mountains along with her three dogs. She has a small circle of walking friends, she paints, yet her days are still lonely. Her son Josh calls now and then to make sure all is well, but they rarely have very much to say to one another.
Before long an immigrant family from Cambodia, also trying to start a new and more peaceful life, move into town near Hattie. The Chhung family is living in a trailer on church property. The family consists of a mother, father, teenage daughter and son and also an infant son here in Vermont. They also have two additional girls who were placed in foster homes prior to the family moving this area. While other members of the community struggle to sort out what their duty to the newcomers should be, Hattie has both the time and the willingness to assist this family in their transition to life in Vermont. Although the family is reluctant to let an outsider into their circle, Hattie takes to Sophy, the fifteen year old girl, who begins to open up and share with her the Chhung family's painful past. When another neighbor, Ginny introduces Sophy to an extremist church, Sophy becomes obsessed with the its teachings and she begins to cool her relationship with Hattie, who is opposed to their preachings.
Just as the Chhungs arrival to the area had changed Hattie's life, so had the arrival of a former lover from her youth, Carter Hatch. He, like Hattie and the Chhungs moved to the area to start a new life. Carter and Hattie worked together, had a relationship and married other people. Now Carter is retired, a former neuroscientist is back in the picture in an on again, off again sort of way. For me, this was the least satisfying part an otherwise terrific novel.
Gish Jen is a new author for me, but I thought that she did a great job with this novel. The writing had me invested in the story early on, but there is certainly more darkness in this story than I expected. The characters are fully fleshed out, so that I felt like some of the many characters, could be people found in most any town in America these days. This immigrant story paints mostly painful portrait of life, yet I was happy I read the book.