Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
discussion topics, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance
your group's reading of Gish Jen's The Love Wife. We hope they will
provide you with interesting ways of talking about this funny, touchingly
realistic novel about the new American family by the acclaimed author of Typical
American and Mona in the Promised Land.
At the beginning of the novel, Blondie says, "At least I had my
family. Every happy family has its innocence. I suppose, looking back, this
was ours" (p. 4). Is her belief in the sanctity of the family shared by the
others? In what ways does her upbringing and her position within the Bailey
family as "the throwback, a plain Jane who seemed to have no part in certain
family games" (p. 70) influence her point of view?
How does Mama Wong's Alzheimer's affect Carnegie's feelings about
her? In what ways do his reactions offer insights not only into her character
but into Carnegie's as well? Compare his feelings and the way he expresses
them to Blondie's blunter observations about her mother-in-law. Are the
differences based purely on their relationship to Mama Wong and her treatment
of each of them? How does Jen capture the poignancy, the frustration, and even
the humor of dealing with an Alzheimer's patient?
Several decades separate the arrivals of Mama Wong and Lan in America.
What insights do their backgrounds provide into the position of women in
Chinese society both before and after the Communist takeover? Using
Carnegie's retelling of Mama Wong's story (p. 30) and Lan's thoughts as
she settles into the household (pp. 39-50) and her description of her life in
China (p. 95102) as a starting point, discuss the ways in which their
expectations and their experiences as immigrants differ and what they have in
common. What do their comments about life in America bring to light about the
changes in this country during that same period?
When Mama Wong dies, Carnegie says, "What a large word, 'mother';
how puny its incorporation. Like the words 'her family,' meaning me. It
was at times like this that I missed having a father, but not only for myself.
I missed my mother having a husband . . ." (pp. 17778) How does this
reflection encapsulate Carnegie's state of mind and his emotional awakening?
What impact do his memories of childhood, his mother's memorabilia, and the
discovery of the existence of the family book [pp. 189-193] have on his
relationship with Blondie? How does Jen make these changes apparent?
Lizzy is in many ways a typical teenager trying to establish her own
identity. To what extent does her image of herself as "mixed-up soup du
jour" (p. 8) help to explain her almost immediate attachment to Lan? Does
Lan take advantage of Lizzy's confusion in an unfair or calculated way?
What does Wendy's perspective add to our understanding of the family
dynamics? What particular passages or incidents show that she, as Lan tells
her, "See not only with your eyes but with your heart" (p. 90)? What
effect does the fact that her adoption fits a more normal pattern than
Lizzy's and that her origins are relatively clear have on the way she is
treated by others and on her sense of herself?
Blondie asks herself, "Were we adopting this child [Wendy] for her
good or for ours?" (p. 120) What does this imply about parenthood? Is it as
relevant to the decision to have a child of one's own as it is to adopting a
What is the significance of Blondie's assertion, "I had always drawn
strength from the fact that my hair next to Lizzy's should be a picture that
challenged the heart. Now I drew on it purposefully, the way other women drew
on the knowledge that they were intelligent or thin. I had had the heart to
take in these children, after all. Had I not loved them deeply and well, as if
they were from the beginning my own?" (p. 133). Does her description of
Bailey's birth (p. 156) cast a different light on her feelings?
Is Blondie's uneasiness about Lan's claims on the children's
affections unusual? What distinguishes Lan's role in the household from the
usual interactions between a family and the people who care for their
children? In what ways do Lan's personality and her judgments (p. 136, for
example), as well as Carnegie's and Blondie's attitudes, contribute to the
ambiguous nature of the relationship?
Does Lan's presence in the household alter Blondie and Carnegie's
marriage in a fundamental way, or does it simply throw into relief differences
that existed all along? To what extent is Carnegie's attraction to Lan (pp.
14244) attributable to misgivings about his marriage? Is the unraveling of
the Wongs' marriage inevitable or does it confirm Blondie's suspicion that
Mama Wong "would send us, from her grave, the wife [Carnegie] should have
married" (p. 195)?
What personal ambitions did Lan bring to the United States? Is her
drive and desire to make the most of herself admirable or opportunistic and
self-serving? How complicit is she in alienating Blondie from the family? What
messages does she convey in the lessons she gives the girls in Chinese
language and culture (pp. 203, 21516, for example)? What do her involvement
with Shang (pp. 285309) and her marriage to Jeb Su reveal about Lan's
Throughout the novel, Blondie and Gabriela exchange e-mails (pp. 131,
141, 202, 219, 307). What insight do these provide that is missing from
Blondie's longer, more detailed accounts of events? What does this
friendship provide Blondie that is lacking in her relationship with Carnegie
and with her siblings and father?
Why does Blondie's effort to reclaim her family by becoming a
stay-at-home mom ultimately fail? Beyond the practical implications, what is
the importance of her decision to move out of the house?
The book ends on an ambivalent note. Why are the final words Wendy's
and how do they relate to the themes of the novel?
Each character presents a personal chronicle of the events in their
lives, sometimes commenting on or correcting the perceptions of the others.
How would you describe the tone of each character's commentary? For example,
what qualities do Carnegie's portrait of Blondie (pp. 2021) and his "selected preconceptions, wholly inexcusable" about Lan (p. 12) have in
How do the juxtaposition of viewpoints and the mixture of tones effect
the way the story unfolds and your reactions to the individual characters?
Which one, if any, dominates the narrative? Does a particular character stand
out as the emotional center of the novel? How might a reader's own
experience, gender, or background influence their sympathies for the various
Gish Jen's previous booksTypical American, Mona in the Promised
Land, and Who's Irish?established her as a funny and incisive
portrayer of the way people of various backgrounds, cultures, and ambitions
search for a place for themselves in America. How does The Love Wife
extend and add twists to the notion of America as a nation of immigrants? Has
the need to assimilate become less important to recent immigrants than it was
to past generations or has assimilation become redefined?
About This Book The Wong
family lives in a lovely old farmhouse in a town outside of Boston. Carnegie,
a second-generation Chinese American, has a good job at a high-tech company.
Blondie, the perfect embodiment of Midwestern farm-girl looks and New England
WASP manners, heads up marketing at a socially responsible investment firm.
They have two adopted daughters, both of Asian originLizzy, age fifteen,
and Wendy, nineand a thirteen-month-old biological son, Bailey. Carnegie
and Blondie see the family as a loving, flexible, and harmonious "improvisation." For Mama Wong, Carnegie's strong-willed mother,
however, it is ludicrously unnatural. With the sly determination that marked
her amazing rise from impoverished immigrant to well-to-do landlord, Mama Wong
decides to set things right in her will by arranging for Lan, a distant "relative" from China, to join the family. Despite Carnegie's assurances
that Lan has come only to help with the children, Blondie can't help but
wonder whether the arrangement represents the ultimate step in Mama Wong's
plans for her son.
The Love Wife is a witty, sharp-eyed, compassionate look at a patchwork
family and the gradual unraveling of the threads that bind them. In Gish
Jen's deftly crafted narrative, the characters all have their say,
reflecting on the past and the present, on the carefully made choices and
unforeseen complications that shape the reality of their lives.
Suggested Reading Suzanne Berne,
A Perfect Arrangement; Rosellen Brown, Half a Heart; Susan Choi,
The Foreign Student; Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Arranged Marriage;
Kim Wong Keltner, The Dim Sum of All Things;Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy;
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake; Chang-rae Lee, Aloft, A Gesture Life;
Gus Lee, China Boy; Martha McPhee, Gorgeous Lies; Bharati
Mukherjee, Jasmine; Allison Pearson, I Don't Know How She Does It;
Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing; Amy Tan, The Bonesetter's
Daughter; Meg Wolitzer, The Wife
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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