Excerpt from The Love Wife by Gish Jen, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Love Wife

by Gish Jen

The Love Wife
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2004, 400 pages
    Oct 2005, 400 pages

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--Squirrels will triumph, said Carnegie, observing this. It's only natural.

But the seeds, surprisingly, sprouted in the spring--and wasn't that natural too? I had assumed the seeds sterile. They ought to have been sterile. One day I noticed in the grass, though, a rosetta of sunflower seedlings--each topped with a little leaf bow tie--which were almost immediately no longer seedlings; which were daily, miraculously, larger and larger--until there they loomed, modestly huge-headed, fantastic with a rightness I wanted to call beauty.

It was these that I saw, when I sat up in bed, the early fall day that Lan came to us. Our house was an old house, with enormously wide floorboards and, between them, correspondingly wide cracks. I toed one of these, and felt, for all our housekeeping, graininess. The children thumped hollering down the stairs; Carnegie called for reinforcements, meaning me. Still, for a half second more I enjoyed my flowers. In one way, they were all wrong--a sudden haphazard clump in the middle of the yard. And yet how I drank them in, through the window screen, and the sunlit fog--that awkward glory. So crowded; disorderly; addled. They looked as if they'd dropped their contact lenses, every one of them, and all at the same time. These were the homely, brown-faced kind of sunflowers--some twelve feet tall, single-stalked, scraggly-leaved. Their huge heads knocked into one another. How strange they were--that bird feeder still nestled among their knees, like something they might trip on. And yet how authentic, somehow. How blissfully undeterred; full of the triumph of having become, from the seed of themselves, themselves.

Would this Lan--her name was Lan, meaning 'orchid'--like them?

Back when I was a sophomore in college, I spent a summer in Hong Kong, studying Mandarin. A summer was not a long time. Still, I did learn, a little, about how the Chinese in general prized the cultured. The cultivated.

These sunflowers, meanwhile, were anything but.

Of course, Mainlanders were different than Hong Kongers. The younger generations were different than the older. The less educated were different than the more. Daoists were different. Lan herself could be different.

In this family, we do not generalize, my mother would say. In this family, we keep an open mind.

Still, in my heart of hearts, I wished that this Lan would never come to behold them at all. I wished not to have to explain their beauty.

Now I believed, please understand, in openness. In the importance of cultural exchange, especially what with globalization and whatnot. My family had always hosted exchange students. And whatever the circumstances under which this Lan came, she was, after all, a relative of Carnegie's. Family.

Yet if I could add a word to our language, it would be a word for the peace a grown woman feels on the days--the rare days--when she needs to consider no view but her own.

WENDY  /  Dad has the windshield wipers on but like no one can see on account of the fog. How can the plane even land, says Lizzy, but Dad says there are special instruments, no one has to be able to see anything.

--It's like jumping, he says, can't we land on the floor with our eyes closed?

--A plane doesn't have feet like ours, says Lizzy. That's reassuring but not true.

--Oh really, says Dad. And where did you learn that?

--Some things you know yourself if you're smart enough to realize it, she says.

--What's reassuring? I say.

--Oh, use your brain, says Lizzy.

--Ah-ah-ah-choo! says Bailey.

Baby Bailey is so little he still has this mirror in front of him in the car. Now he sneezes at the baby in the mirror again--ah-ah-ah-chooo!--and laughs and laughs, loving himself so much that he drools. Dad says he's like Narcissus making his own pool, but then doesn't tell us what that means. In the fullness of time you will get my jokes, he says. In the fullness of time.

Excerpted from The Love Wife by Gish Jen Copyright© 2004 by Gish Jen. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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