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World and Town    by Gish Jen order for
World and Town
by Gish Jen
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Hattie Kong was born in China to a descendant of Confucius and an American ex-missionary mother who had gone native by leaving her church and marrying Hattie's Chinese father. Although her mother wore Chinese clothes, she insisted on her children becoming fluent in both Chinese and English. Her father wore Western clothes until Hattie was fifteen, when his mother started insisting that they must marry Hattie to a Chinese cousin. He began wearing Chinese clothes then, admitting to his wife that he was afraid of his mother. Before there could be a showdown about the marriage, fear of the Cultural Revolution led her parents to send Hattie to America to stay with relatives.

When her relatives were unable to care for her, Hattie was sent to friends of theirs, where she grew up in a family of scientists in New England, becoming a well-educated scientist herself. Since her parents and brothers were unable to escape from China, this family became her American family in all but name.

Eventually, after college, there's a split with the family that we learn about little by little as we read this book. It begins when Hattie is a retired teacher and widow, once again living in the town where she vacationed with the Hatch family when she was young. Still mourning her husband and best friend, who both died two years before, she is finally beginning to regain her equanimity when two things happen to destroy her new-found peace. Carter Hatch returns to the town to live. He is the elder son of the family she lived with when she came from China, and he became her best friend and later her lover. A Cambodian family moves into a trailer down the hill from her, and as she attempts to be neighborly, she becomes worried about their welfare, and involved in their lives.

I enjoyed reading this book, both for the content and the style of writing. Hattie has an ironic sense of humor that seems to serve her well when she has no idea how to deal with her problems. She stumbles along sometimes, hoping that she's doing the right thing, a way of coping with life that is familiar to me, and I can worry right along with Hattie about whether what she's doing is appropriate or not. She is swept along by events, wanting only to be left alone, and being forever included, until she wants to be included and finds herself left out. She is a delightful character whom I liked very much.

We become acquainted with a variety of Hattie's relatives, friends, and neighbors, who pop in and out of her house and the story. The teenage daughter of the Cambodian family becomes a particular friend and worry for Hattie. We hear from the friend who died two years before as Hattie imagines her comments about the events in the story, and we read with Hattie the letters from her nieces in China, who implore her to return the ashes of her parents to the Kong graveyard. All the while Hattie attempts to calm herself by painting bamboo, seated in her sunroom overlooking the Cambodian neighbors and grabbing her binoculars every now and then. The story is as interesting and as much fun to read as Hattie is likeable. I highly recommend World and Town, for its characters, story, and especially for Hattie.

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