Desert Isle Keeper
Mambo in Chinatown
A delightful mix of The Ugly Duckling and Cinderella, this story is in many ways a modern day fairytale. The best part is that our heroine is not just a passive good girl waiting for her Prince to come rescue her. She sets out to find something better for herself and along the way is fortunate enough to meet a man who just might prove to be her future. But he is incidental to the story. What our heroine really finds along the way is herself.
Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong works with her father, a famed noodle maker, at a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. An ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie has spent her whole life in this area, a place full of ancient traditions colliding violently with the strange new world in which the immigrants find themselves. When her mother, a once famous ballerina, died Charlie took over the care of her little sister Lisa and the management of the tiny apartment she, her sister and father share. Her view of the world has been consigned to their small community ever since.
Although her father is acclaimed for his noodles, he is virtually a slave in the restaurant he works in. But at least he has honor in his work. Charlie is a dishwasher at that restaurant, a job which leaves her with chapped hands from burning hot water, an aching back from hours spent hunching over a hot sink and arms and shoulders sore from the hard labor of scrubbing pots and pans all day. When she sees an ad for a receptionist at a dance studio she doesn’t have much hope that she will get the job but she applies anyway. Even if she gets the job she knows she won’t be able to keep it because her untreated dyslexia will keep her from doing well at the position. But Charlie just wants a few moments to recapture happy memories of her mother, a time when the two stood in their tiny living room and trained to dance.
When Charlie miraculously is chosen for the position her life begins to completely turn around, step by slow step. While Charlie has always viewed herself as clumsy it turns out that she has a gift for dance. All those afternoons with her mother in the living room have resulted in her body having a natural understanding of rhythm and movement that she never knew she had. Slowly, with the help of the people in the studio she leaves behind her old lady clothes and transforms from an ugly duckling into the graceful, beautiful swan she is meant to be. She makes important moves in her career. She meets a handsome man who gradually wears down her defenses and inspires in her dreams she had long forgotten. But even as Charlie’s star rises her old world collides with her new. Her conservative father fears losing her to a Western lifestyle. And her sister grows very ill, with nothing their Eastern medicine doctor can do for her. Will Charlie be able to keep her new life and passion or will she once more put her family before herself and sacrifice everything for them?
I’m a real sucker for transformation stories and this is a fantastic one. Charlie goes from being a girl living solely for others to a young woman who balances her own needs with that of those around her. I loved how the author worked that transformation but also showed us that the people taking advantage of Charlie were really just trying to carve something out for themselves too. This family is so very poor – it is almost painful to see how hard they have to work to have even a quarter of what most of us take for granted. And I loved how Charlie’s roots were such a part of her – from the time with her mother which leads to the new job to the battle between Western and Eastern ways that takes place in almost every decision made.
I also just loved the look at the immigration experience that takes place for many, many years after you arrive in a new place. Even for Charlie and Lisa, who were born here, America has many strange traits since they have been raised in an area that is essentially a small slice of the Old Country. It takes time, effort and courage for their small family to step out of their familiar community and embrace the larger world. Watching them take those small moves forward adds richness and depth to characters that are already engaging. It was also nice to see a family that fit the description the Statue of Liberty; “Give me your tired your poor Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Most of the immigrants I’ve encountered lately in literature are professionals; Charlie and her family make a nice change.
The romance here is lovely and perfectly paced, with lots of back and forth to it. But I loved the fact that the story was about Charlie becoming Charlie first. Had the romance been there from the beginning I don’t think I could have enjoyed the sweetness of it nearly as much as I did.
For me, this book was a delightful little treasure. I loved spending time with Charlie and all the people who made up her world.