Book Review: What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan

The plane begin to lift. As Lina’s center of gravity changed, she was pressed flat against her chair. Outside, the ground slipped from view. They were gaining speed, and soon they would be far away. Far enough to cross time zones, the concept of which still made Lina’s head spin. In China, a person’s day might start with the sun a little higher or a little lower than that of his countrymen, but their lives were all marked by the same clock, no matter how far apart they lived. America had six time zones. Lina’s father called it the land of dreams, and so it seemed. For what other
country aspire to occupy the past, present, and future, all the same time?
What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan is a sweeping tale of a Chinese-American family as they move through the world in their varying iterations: young adults on the cusp of maturity and love in their native village, immigrants to America and, finally, as older adults returned to their homeland facing, for the first time, the ways their years and geography have changed them. Qiang, the mysterious brother of Wei and childhood friend of Lina has all but disappeared, until an unlikely connection brings him to Shanghai. Lina and Wei are married and have returned to Shanghai with their daughter, Karen, wherein they face the jarring disconnect of being Chinese born now inhabiting the wealthy highrises in this sprawling city teeming with foreign dignitaries and businessmen. The only character not of the Zhen family is their maid turned caregiver, Sunny, whose present-day story highlights the stark contrast between Lina’s life now and where, possibly, she could have been.
“It’s not about age. It’s about how much you can stand. The foreigners are one thing, but these Chinese-born… it’s sickening to watch them accumulate their handbags and their fancy cars. To clean up after their parties. They’re not so much younger than us. We’re all Chinese, aren’t we? Our parents all grew up under Mao and Deng Xiaoping together. The entire country was poor- together. They act like they weren’t raised in a place where for most people, breakfast was watered-down rice, too thin even to be called porridge. They think they’re so much better than us because they got schooling and went abroad…”
As younger men, brothers Qiang and Wei chose separate paths in life: Qiang was always one for danger and risk, choosing to spend his time gambling while Wei was a straight arrow, setting out to please his family and become a more traditional success. It was these choices that contributed to their estrangement, resulting in a dissolution of the sibling relationship. However, when Qiang spots Wei on a television show, he reaches out, causing not only Wei but Lina also to reflect on their youth together and where life has taken them since. It becomes clear that Lina finds herself caught in the in-between: thankful for her current place in life yet restless and plagued by the feeling of what could have been.
That’s funny, she thought. With you around, I recognize myself again. But he was only a reminder of her younger self, nothing more. His coming him brought with it the thought that she could still make the kind of life she wanted for herself. It frightened her, the ease with which she could arrive at a place without any obvious intention. And yet she could no longer blame her unhappiness on Qiang or Wei. It was no good imagining the other choices she might have made. Dreams of a life lived differently were just that-dreams.

As the narratives alternate between the past and present, rural and urban China, we are able to appreciate the period of growth that Lina, Wei, Qiang and Sunny experienced in their move from quiet village to bustling metropolis albeit in very different ways. What emerges through this juxtaposition is the broader understanding of the growth of China as a country. And in the same way we see the values and practices of a country change through the behaviors of our characters. In What We Were Promised, Tan has crafted a panoramic tale of one family that spans decades and encompasses the rich history, tradition and ideals of one dynamic country.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Little Brown and Co.

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