Feature

Novel of the week: World and Town by Gish Jen

In Jen’s fourth novel, Hattie Kong, a retired and recently widowed teacher, helps a Cambodian teenager navigate between the pulls of her family and American culture.

(Knopf, 384 pages, $27)

Gish Jen has made a career of exploring various forms of “cultural collision” in America, said Malena Watrous in the San Francisco Chronicle. In Jen’s fourth novel, Hattie Kong, a retired and recently widowed teacher, returns to the Vermont town that she called home when she was a young exchange student from China. Longing for emotional connection, she soon becomes deeply entangled in the “hopelessly complicated” lives of a Cambodian family that lives next door. Hattie becomes “especially close” to the family’s oldest daughter, a teenager who reminds her of her younger self, said Margaret Quamme in the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch. As Hattie helps the girl navigate between the pulls of family and American culture, Jen treats all but one character in the book with generosity and humor: “The story’s one ardent churchgoer might as well be wearing horns.” Mostly, though, these characters are beautifully drawn, and Jen’s “bighearted, rumpled novel” allows them to discover “new ways to live together.”

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