REVIEW: 'Mambo in Chinatown,' by Jean Kwok

  • Article by: MALCOLM FORBES , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2014 - 1:35 PM

BOOK REVIEW: East meets West in a warmhearted novel about dancing, family loyalty and the trials of the Chinese-American immigrant experience.

"Mambo in Chinatown," by Jean Kwok

In Jean Kwok’s second novel, “Mambo in Chinatown” (Riverhead Books, 373 pages, $27.95), Charlie Wong is a 22-year-old American-born Chinese woman with a drab, dead-end job as a dishwasher in New York’s Chinatown. Home is a cramped apartment with younger sister Lisa and a widower father who works every hour to make ends meet. One day an unlikely opportunity arises: A professional ballroom dance studio is looking for a receptionist. Charlie lands the job, her enthusiasm in the interview trumping her inexperience. However, nothing can mask her incompetence and she is later fired — only to be hired by the same studio as a teacher for beginners. Under the tutelage of dance-supremo Julian, she dazzles as an instructor and takes off as a dancer. But her newfound luck and happiness don’t last when she starts worrying about Lisa’s mysterious life-threatening illness and her own feelings toward student Ryan.

The protagonist of Kwok’s debut novel, “Girl in Translation” (2010), was a brilliant schoolgirl during the day and a sweatshop worker in the evening. In this novel, Charlie leads a similar double life, one which also offers a tantalizing glimpse of an alternative to drudgery. Kwok’s premise is familiar, but the more we read the more we see that her whole template is derivative: Clumsy, dowdy Charlie (“a cow among gazelles”) discovers her hidden talent and works at it to drag herself and her family out of their rut; Simone is the coldblooded villainess, Ryan is Prince Charming, and the great-stakes dance competition at the end, complete with last-minute moral reckoning, serves as the climactic showdown.

Kwok’s high point is her vivid Chinatown — colorful markets, traditional medicine (involving donkey umbilical cords, Tibetan caterpillars and rat fetuses), a witch called the Vision — and her deft juxtaposition of old and new worlds. That said, when Kwok shoehorns in tai chi and feng shui, acupuncture cures and chopstick etiquette, superstitions and wisdom, there are notable signs of strain, as if she is working from a checklist. Plot implausibility (beginner teaches beginners in top dance studio) constitutes the main low point, together with the glut of painfully corny love-lines: “There were so many reasons Ryan was wrong for me, but when he held me in dance position, he felt just right.”

And yet it would be churlish to be too harsh, for “Mambo in Chinatown” will appeal to readers untroubled by unoriginality or shock-free happy endings. For a classic example of an undemanding feel-good read, look no further.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.

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