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Reviews of Real Americans by Rachel Khong

Real Americans by Rachel Khong

Real Americans

A Novel

by Rachel Khong
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  • First Published:
  • Apr 30, 2024
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About This Book

Book Summary

From the award-winning author of Goodbye, Vitamin: How far would you go to shape your own destiny? An exhilarating novel of American identity that spans three generations in one family and asks: What makes us who we are? And how inevitable are our futures?

Real Americans begins on the precipice of Y2K in New York City, when twenty-two-year-old Lily Chen, an unpaid intern at a slick media company, meets Matthew. Matthew is everything Lily is not: easygoing and effortlessly attractive, a native East Coaster, and, most notably, heir to a vast pharmaceutical empire. Lily couldn't be more different: flat-broke, raised in Tampa, the only child of scientists who fled Mao's Cultural Revolution. Despite all this, Lily and Matthew fall in love.

In 2021, fifteen-year-old Nick Chen has never felt like he belonged on the isolated Washington island where he lives with his single mother, Lily. He can't shake the sense she's hiding something. When Nick sets out to find his biological father, the journey threatens to raise more questions than it provides answers.

In immersive, moving prose, Rachel Khong weaves a profound tale of class and striving, race and visibility, and family and inheritance—a story of trust, forgiveness, and finally coming home.

Exuberant and explosive, Real Americans is a social novel par excellence that asks: Are we destined, or made? And if we are made, who gets to do the making? Can our genetic past be overcome?

B E I J I N G , 1 9 6 6

She isn't afraid, but he is. They stand, in the darkness, before a glass case of old things. A Ming dynasty inkstone. A chrysanthemum carved from horn. A Song painting stamped with ruby-red collector's seals. And on a silk pillow, so slight it could be missed: an ancient lotus seed with a legend behind it.

The story goes like this: One night, long ago, a dragon emerged from the sky and dropped this seed into the emperor's open hand. His advisors huddled near to examine it. What fortune! they remarked. This seed would grant the emperor his greatest wish. Unfortunately, he died that night, while contemplating his options. He might have asked for immortality.

She takes a hammer from her knapsack. With all her strength, she strikes the glass. It makes a beautifully clear sound as it shatters. Quickly, the two get to work, securing the relics. It is an attempt to spare them from the Red Guards' destruction—an act of protest, small, against a movement she's no ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. The prologue of the novel describes a brief scene with a character we later learn is May and a fabled lotus seed, which May swallows. In what ways did this action symbolically (or, perhaps, biologically) affect the course of action that would follow in May's life and, by extension, Lily's and Nick's? Do you think that if she hadn't swallowed the seed, the succeeding events would have transpired?
  2. Within the first few chapters, it's clear that Lily was largely raised as an American without much knowledge of Chinese culture. What are some character traits that point to this? Why do you think immigrants assimilate to white American culture and mannerisms and raise their kids this way? In what ways does Lily yearn for a greater, richer ...
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BookBrowse Review


Over the course of the book, we meet May, her daughter Lily, and her grandson Nick. May, who flees China's Cultural Revolution and the persecution of scientists and academics, is driven by a passion for understanding gene expression. As the title suggests, the book explores what it means to be a "real American." Each of the three main characters feels excluded in some way: one doesn't look the part; one looks the part but feels different from his peers; one's past life and language is just too different to be shared in current surroundings. Yet the individualism of all their behaviors seems undeniably American in contrast to family-oriented Confucian values, or the greater-whole social principles of Chinese Communism. Throughout the book lingers the question of one's future: fate, destiny, free will. If we really knew and understood our past, would we make the same decisions? How much of our lives can we change; are they destined, free will, or luck?..continued

Full Review Members Only (768 words)

(Reviewed by Pei Chen).

Media Reviews

Los Angeles Times
A…masterful, shape-shifting novel about multiracial identity….What makes Americans 'real'? Is it our competitive drive? Our craving for wealth and status? Our insatiable quest for scientific advancement? Or is it—inevitably—the color of our skin and eyes?… [Rachel] Khong manages these twisting threads with masterful deftness…. [An] irresistible puzzle of a novel.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Real Americans is both a novel of ideas and of beautiful sentences. Khong's prose is a pleasure to read… even as the questions she raises are chilling, indeed.

Oprah Daily
Unforgettable…Vibrant, tender and one to pass onto a friend.

Real Simple
This multigenerational stunner asks a thought-provoking question: Do we have any control over our destiny, or do some people just get lucky?

San Francisco Chronicle
Riveting in its unexpected turns, Real Americans is a novel about past mistakes and their echoes — and a reminder that those histories need not be binding.

The New York Times
Remarkable… Folded into [Real Americans] are doomed love stories, fancy parties, a subplot about epigenetics, Chinese people who look white and yummy treats… The book also poses a dizzying array of questions: What does it mean to be American, and who gets to say who is one?

Literary Hub
By encompassing a family as a whole, [Real Americans] asks big questions about our lineage and futures, how much is really up to us, whether the fact of our pasts guarantee our fate, or whether we have agency over the lives we live.

It's a tale as old as time: Poor girl meets rich boy, they fall in love, and they live happily ever after. Well, not quite… A profound read.

[Rachel] Khong layers the lives of her characters to challenge how well we can really know one another… [Khong]…captures the feeling of floating in the in-between, not firmly tethered to one pole of identity or another but instead looking for a way to feel secure in your own space… And that title—Real Americans—evokes more questions than any single book could answer. What is American, and what is real?

Washington Post
If you liked Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, read Real Americans by Rachel Khong...[Rachel Khong] returns, painting on a larger canvas, in this story about three generations of a Chinese American family...Different voices follow, in a multilayered look at family and identity.

[Real Americans is a] plot-rich, spiraling, multigenerational epic [that] possesses the same heartrending humanity and deceptively subtle portrayal of characters' unseen depths [as Rachel Khong's debut]—so impossible to relate, so essential to everything. As in life, the love is in the details.

Kirkus Review (starred review)
Every character is dear, and every one of them makes big mistakes, causing a ripple effect of anger and estrangement that we watch with dismay, and hope...Bold, thoughtful, and delicate at once, addressing life's biggest questions through artfully crafted scenes and characters.

Publishers Weekly
Khong returns (after Goodbye, Vitamin) with an impressive family drama...Khong is both a perceptive prose stylist and an accomplished storyteller, and she shines brightest when portraying differing cultural styles of parental love...Khong reaches new heights with this fully-fledged outing.

Author Blurb Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half

Khong masterfully explores a family splintered by science, struggling to redefine their own lives after uncovering harrowing secrets. Real Americans is a mesmerizing multigenerational novel about privilege, identity and the illusions of the American dream.

Author Blurb Ha Jin, author of Waiting
Real Americans is a grand novel that explores the American psyche, dramatizing the fundamental American belief in the ability to change the world and improve humanity. Rachel Khong shows infinite and colorful perceptions of the world, which are often leavened with wisdom. Besides being a page turner, this book is also an eye-opener, imaginative and exhilarating.

Reader Reviews

Gloria M

Must Read!
I vaguely remember all the great reviews and awards Rachel Khong received back in 2017 for her first published novel, "Goodbye, Vitamin" and thinking I should add it to my TBR list, which somehow never actually happened (which I totally regret-and it...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Chinese Science During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

May, the matriarch of Rachel Khong's Real Americans, is born into a poor rural Chinese family in the 1950s. Her fate is foretold by her mother's life: wake before dawn to cook breakfast, clean up after the men in the family, head to the rice paddies and toil until the time to head home to cook supper, rinse and repeat. It is backbreaking. Luckily for May, she possesses an academic gift and an intellectual curiosity that missed her elder brothers. She excels at the National Exam, testing into esteemed Peking University to study biology. Her tuition is sponsored by the state and she escapes rural poverty to become a glamorous urban student. "You look like the girl from the [propaganda] poster," May's young cousin says admiringly on her return...

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Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

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