What We Were Promised is both a look at life in modern day China and an observation on the unchanging nature of humanity. “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” John Donne told us. This book shows that as a universal truth.
After years of going to college and then working in America, the small Zhen family of Wei, Lina and Karen have moved back to China. Wei is a success story, having acquired wealth and status far beyond what was available in the small village in which he was raised. A perfectionist who has excelled since early childhood at pretty much everything he has attempted, he is now able to house his family in a luxurious, full service apartment complex filled with other ex-pats: Chinese-born, Western-educated professionals who have returned to a new, thriving China.
Meanwhile, their housekeeper Sunny embodies the difficulties within her modern nation. She did not rise above her small village roots but was forced out of them by a family who had no place for an unmarried woman unwilling to give them grandchildren. She keeps a professional, courteous distance from the Zhens’ lives until she is invited to be the family ayi for the summer. As a nanny/cook/ and all-around errand girl, she sees first-hand the tensions that are slowly unraveling them. Boss Zhen is very good at his job but doesn’t like it. With her daughter spending the school year in America and with no work for her to do in the house, Lina has become a taitai, a rich woman whose only function is to look pretty, and gossip with friends. Daughter Karen has no real place in her home, since it is only her home for a few months of the year. Spoiled and lonely, she latches unto Sunny as a lifeline.
When Qiang, Wei’s long-lost brother, reconnects with the Zhens, he sets off a quiet chain of events which makes them question whether what they have has been worth the sacrifices they made to get it.
What attracted me to this story was the opportunity to read a novel set in modern China. The book certainly delivered on that aspect of the tale, providing a fascinating view of life in Shanghai from several different aspects. I also appreciated the in-depth looks the author affords us into the past, from the re-education camp to which Lina’s father was sent during the post revolution years, to the villages Wei and Sunny grew up in. I loved how the story encompasses changing attitudes toward family, marriage and tradition. The author absolutely excells at her setting.
She also does a great job with her characters. I loved Sunny and Wei; I would also have enjoyed spending more time with Wei’s father, who seemed a very, very interesting character in his own right. All three are people who go above and beyond; who work hard and never quit trying to be their best selves. That kind of positive, vibrant spirit reflects, I think, the spirit of modern Shanghai and China itself. A desire to rise above the sorrows and challenges of the past and be better and stronger for the future. The symbiosis of the characters, culture and city in this arena is masterfully handled.
Sunny and Lina, as the primary women in the story, present deeply contrasting personalities and also, I think, reflect the difference between the past and present of the country. Lina, having had the same opportunities as Wei, doesn’t take advantage of them as much. She reminds me of the wives and concubines depicted in tales about ancient China, obsessed with the politics of the women’s quarters which is, in this case, her modern apartment complex. She is also obsessed with the past; with her father’s incarceration, her mother’s strange reactions to the Zhens and with Qiang.
Qiang’s character was perhaps the most difficult one for me to wrap my head around. When I heard his backstory, I almost felt sorry for him, but by then, I didn’t like him. There is a scene about midway through the book which shows he had a rather sadistic nature even in early childhood. He seems to have an innate cruelty, even though for the bulk of his life he has been treated with great kindness.
A line from Wei captured best what I think drove both Lina and Qiang:
Qiang and Lina were both entitled and had never doubted for a moment they’d be taken care of. They were the kinds of people who blamed others for the things that went wrong in their lives.
I thought that exemplified a lot of what the author was showing us in the book; the differing attitudes between those who seize opportunities and those who throw them away. How an obsession with what happened in the past, such as Qiang and Lina have, is different from a respect for it, which Wei has; and how that subtle difference can play out badly in real life.
The last line of the story is really intriguing and thought provoking as well.
These objects of luxury they handled – how easy it was to fill them with meaning, to let them represent what you did or didn’t have. How difficult, in fact, to know what you wanted in the first place.
We do imbue objects with no intrinsic value with far more worth than they should have, physically or emotionally. This story is about that, too; what we really want from life and what we will give to attain it.
What We Were Promised is a character-driven tale which reflects the heart and soul of a nation going through great changes. It’s a beautifully written, evocative and provocative narrative which shows that human nature is the same the world over, even when our lives look superficially different.
Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble/Apple Books/Kobo
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