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The Family Chao


The Family Chao

Lan Samantha Chang’s new novel, THE FAMILY CHAO, opens on what should be a festive occasion. It’s Christmas, and the three Chao sons are returning home to the small town of Haven, Wisconsin. Their parents, Winnie and Leo, have owned and operated Haven’s only Chinese restaurant for the past three-and-a-half decades.

Youngest son James, a freshman in college, is also everyone’s favorite; a natural peacemaker, he tries hard to gloss over the conflicts at the center of his family’s other relationships. Middle son Ming is a big shot, having moved to New York City and become determined to distance himself as much as possible from both his family and Haven, where he was bullied incessantly by his white schoolmates while he was growing up. Oldest son Dagou once tried to leave Haven, but after a failed career as a musician, he returned home, helping Leo run the restaurant.

"Mouthwatering in more ways than one, THE FAMILY CHAO is a literary mystery that readers can sink their teeth into."

But this is no ordinary holiday celebration, as readers soon learn. It turns out that shortly after James left for college, Winnie --- finally fed up with Leo’s long history of drinking and extramarital affairs --- has moved out of the house. This longtime meat-lover (red-cooked pork was her specialty at the restaurant) and devout Christian has moved into the local Buddhist spiritual center and become a vegetarian. It also turns out that Dagou’s return to Haven has been far from peaceful; he’s broken off his engagement to his longtime fiancée, Katherine (though that’s news to her), in order to rekindle a relationship with Brenda, his high school flame.

As the novel opens, Dagou has called the family to the spiritual center, with the purpose of confronting Leo and demanding that he keep his one-time promise to make him an equal partner in the family business. Unbeknownst to (most of) the family, Dagou has gotten himself into serious financial trouble, which significantly raises the stakes for him --- and for the elaborate Christmas dinner celebration he’s planning at the restaurant. And then there’s that bag of money floating around.

If you’ve ever read Dostoevsky’s THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, you might recognize some of the outlines of this plot. But even those who haven’t brushed up on their Russian literature in a while will find plenty to appreciate in Chang’s remix of this classic novel. As one might expect, tragedy ensues, and much of the book’s second half takes place in the courtroom, complete with revelations, family secrets and more than one betrayal.

The setting and characters offer plenty of space in which Chang can explore the multiple pressures brought to bear on the children of Asian immigrants growing up in a small Midwestern town --- from their family’s expectations regarding filial piety to local prejudices to a feeling of estrangement from one’s culture of origin. It is also suffused with humor, much of it ironic, and delicious descriptions of Chinese food.

Mouthwatering in more ways than one, THE FAMILY CHAO is a literary mystery that readers can sink their teeth into.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 11, 2022

The Family Chao
by Lan Samantha Chang