Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Review: Mambo in Chinatown

Mambo in Chinatown
By Jean Kwok
Published: June 24, 2014

From the bestselling author of Girl in Translation, a novel about a young woman torn between her family duties in Chinatown and her escape into the world of ballroom dancing.

Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.

But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

My review:

I loved Girl in Translation so when I found out that the author had written a new book, I knew I had to read it. Reading Mambo in Chinatown proved to be a different kind of reading experience. With the first book I felt so emotionally invested in Kimberly and her difficult circumstances and while I felt bad for Charlie and frustrated by her family I did not connect with her as much. 

Charlie is a hardworking and devoted daughter who has had to step in and take care of her sister and dad after their mother died. Charlie is not known for her grades like her little sister but she can help her family by working as a dishwasher (even though she is terrible at it). The one thing Charlie is good at is Tai Chi. When she goes to class she becomes this graceful and confident person so different from how she is in other areas of her life. 

When Charlie finds a job as a secretary at a dance studio, it changes her life. She has to keep her job a secret (her dad doesn't want her to have anything to do with dance). Charlie turns out to be a terrible secretary but she has a natural talent for dance which she discovers when the school needs a substitute teacher to fill in for their beginning dance class. It is a little far fetched to believe that Charlie could be trained in a short time to teach a beginner's dance class but her Tai Chi practice (and talent she inherited from her mom) stand her in good stead. Charlie finds joy in dancing and even a forbidden romance with Ryan, one of her students, but she has to keep everything a secret. Her double life becomes even more complicated when her little sister becomes ill.

Charlie and her sister are close and while their dad can be difficult, he also loves them. It is hard for Charlie to see her sister going through a hard time but she really goes to bat for her to get her into a better school and to figure out what is wrong. She also (mostly) respects her dad even when she disagrees with his beliefs (aside from the whole hiding her job thing). I think that positive family message was there even when the characters didn't get along. Charlie's uncle kind of comes across as a controlling villain at times but he has some redeeming qualities in the end.

The novel takes a look at the culture of ballroom dancing and Eastern medical practices. I love shows like Dancing With the Stars so I really liked the descriptions of ballroom dance.  I thought the dancers were kind of fascinating though their lives were less glamorous and more difficult than one might imagine with the pressure, backstabbing, and drug use. I did like how the dancers kind of take Charlie in and help her out though I don't think she really fits in that world. I also found the medical practices to be interesting and frustrating at the same time. I appreciated the way the author handled that aspect of the book, allowing Charlie to be respectful to her heritage while also embracing Western ideas. 

While I think Girl in Translation is a better book, I did enjoy Mambo in Chinatown and found myself cheering for Charlie as she grew more confident. I also liked the cameo appearance of Kimberly and getting to find out how her story ends. Fans of the first book and readers who are interested in novels about the Chinese American experience should check out Mambo in Chinatown. You don't need to read Girl in Translation first but you may want to anyway.

Note: I received an e-ARC for review purposes courtesy of Netgalley and the publisher

1 comment:

  1. Nice review! The dancing descriptions sound wonderful! I hadn't heard of this one, but I'll add it (and Girl In Translation) to my TBR list :)


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