Happy Family is a novel whose ironic title refers to a Manhattan family that is far from happy. We see this family through the eyes of an immigrant named Hua from Fu Zhou, China.
Author Wendy Lee is Chinese-American, and it is as if she took her own disparate experiences (teaching English in China and growing up in the U.S.) and made them into characters. An immigrant protagonist is an ambitious choice for this debut novelist originally from California, but she pulls it off. Hua's fresh perspective on New York allows us to see the city in a very different light than any American character could. It is this critically distant voice that makes this character come to life.
She has also created a believable China, an understated, matter-of-fact China -- nothing like Amy Tan's China, an imaginary pre-Revolutionary place spun from her mother's stories. Lee's China resembles the country where I also once lived.
From her own experiences living in New York, Wendy has created Jane and Richard -- white, privileged uptowners who have adopted a Chinese infant named Lily, who is cared for by a nanny. Hua befriends Jane and Lily in a park. She is drawn to Lily, and returns often to the park in hopes of finding her. When Lily's nanny leaves, Jane hires Hua. This is how Hua gets such an up-close view of their frustrated lives. We see their apartment in cinematic detail: the Chinese artifacts, the many expensive yet useless items. We see a settled life that has every reason to be more grounded than it is. They are the ones who are supposed to be at home, while she is the foreigner.
The focus on adoption is an interesting one. In this novel Lily does not reach an age in which her cultural identity is an issue, but she represents one extreme of the Chinese-American experience, where Chinese influences are absent -- although not completely, for Jane has hired Hua precisely to fill this void. It is no wonder that Hua, who knows few others in town, becomes attached to the child. Because Lily is Chinese, Hua begins to feel that she is meant to take care of her. The loneliness of Hua's displacement comes into conflict with the loneliness of Jane's failing marriage, and Lily is caught in between. Lee paints an evocative portrait of the emotional lives of two characters with vastly different struggles.
Happy Family is an impressive, deftly written debut. We can look forward to reading Wendy Lee's future work.