Rachel Khong's ambitious second novel, "Real Americans," ponders big issues: how to measure the worth of one's life, the implications of contemporary scientific research and what it means to be an American in an era of extreme wealth inequity.

Divided into three sections, the novel moves smoothly back and forth in time and place to tell the story of three generations of one Chinese American family — Mei Ling "May" Zhang, a scientist who immigrates to the U.S. from China in order to escape the lingering brutality of the Cultural Revolution; May's daughter, Lily, who is born in the U.S.; and Lily's son, Nick.

After a brief preface, the novel opens in the late 1990s with the story of Lily, a recent college graduate working an unpaid internship for a magazine and trying to establish herself in Manhattan. Estranged from her immigrant Chinese parents in Florida, Lily falls in love with a mysterious white man, Matthew, who is living under an assumed name. She soon discovers that he is, in fact, the son and heir of one of the wealthiest families in the U.S., known for their foundation that sponsors medical research and philanthropy.

Khong devotes much of the narrative to showing the seductiveness of access to true wealth. Each of her characters has a good reason to want more money. Who doesn't? As one character says late in the book, "It's the American [expletive] dream."

Matthew is portrayed as blandly as possible, making clear it's only his money that makes him exceptional. While handsome and polite, he has no strong personality traits. A kind of deus ex machina, he pops into the novel at key points, offering incredible amounts of money like a possibly sinister fairy godmother in a Brothers Grimm tale.

His money smooths away the problems of Lily's family, at least temporarily. Can't get a job? Matthew's family can help. Need funding for a startup or research lab? Ditto. Have a great idea to help mankind? Well, here's where things get complicated.

In its final third, "Real Americans" raises ethical questions about the research conducted by both May and Nick to edit genes to eliminate heritable diseases. Khong asks the reader to reflect on what and whom society finds valuable, and how this technology could cause harm in a capitalist world, where various forms of inequity flourish.

Khong treads lightly into science fiction territory, giving several characters the ability to stop time for moments, which isn't really explained or developed as a theme. Perhaps that's her point: What would be a superpower in a different book pales before the power of generational wealth in this one.

"There was a limit to fulfilled desire in a life. Of course, I hadn't been to America. I wasn't aware that certain people lived extravagant lives — with no end to their wanting, never punished for it. But I didn't know that yet," May reflects at one point.

"Real Americans" is both a novel of ideas and of beautiful sentences. Khong's prose is a pleasure to read — as it was in her first novel, "Goodbye, Vitamin," winner of a California Book Award — even as the questions she raises are chilling, indeed.

May-lee Chai is the author of short story collections "Useful Phrases for Immigrants" and "Tomorrow in Shanghai." She is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Real Americans

By: Rachel Khong.

Publisher: Knopf, 416 pages, $29.

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