Lan Samantha Chang's fourth book is a playful literary romp with a serious heart. Ostensibly it's a murder mystery, a whodunit with a large cast of possible suspects, but it's also an exploration of genre, of literary types and stereotypes, and the impact of these types on the hopes and dreams of its characters.
The first half of the novel sets up the motivations for murder by establishing how obnoxious patriarch Leo Chao is. Soon-to-be victim Leo is a successful immigrant, supposedly living his American Dream, owner and chef of the family business, a Chinese restaurant in the small town of Haven, Wis. However, Leo is also overbearing and mean-spirited, a cruel bully to his long-suffering wife, Winnie, and to his three sons. He's a man so grotesque that he even cracks crude jokes about menopause and a woman's worth at a Christmas party while Winnie is in the hospital.
Practically everyone who knows Leo might have a reason to kill him — from eldest son William "Dagou" Chao who feels his father has disinherited him to middle son Ming whose internalized self-loathing may have sprung from a desire to be as unlike his father as possible; to long-suffering restaurant employee O-lan; to rival restaurateurs in town, the Skaer family.
The second half of the novel is where the action soars, as Chang fast-forwards to the murder trial of the eldest son. As family and friends try to figure out who might really have killed Leo and why, the plot twists abound: there's a stolen ring, a fiancée spurned, people with long-held secrets, a hallucinated ghost, a kidnapped dog and a missing carpetbag filled with $50,000.
As Chang's narrative grows more operatic and subversive, her characters marvel at the time-worn narrative put forward by the prosecuting attorney:
"[Leo's] the quintessential Asian American, the model minority: humble, diligent, hardly a person. ... According to the prosecution, Big Chao's son William, a.k.a. Dagou, is not like him. William is a bad minority ... lazy and ungrateful, dishonest, a thief, and sexually enamored of a woman not appropriate for him, a white woman."
"The Family Chao" shows that no immigrant story is ever that simple, but the ease with which this stereotype can be embraced is criminal indeed.
Chang is the director of the Iowa Writers Workshop as well as recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.
May-lee Chai is the American Book Award-winning author of 11 books, including her latest collection of short stories, "Tomorrow in Shanghai," forthcoming in August. She teaches in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University.
The Family Chao
By: Lan Samantha Chang.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 328 pages, $28.