Hattie Kong, a retired teacher and a descendant of Confucius, has decided that it’s time to start over. She moves to the peaceful New England town of Riverlake, a place that once represented the rock-solid base of American life. Instead of quietude, Hattie discovers a town challenged by cell-phone towers, chain stores, and struggling farms. Soon Hattie is joined by an immigrant Cambodian family on the run, and—quite unexpectedly—Carter Hatch, a love from her past. As each character seeks to make a new start on life, World and Town asks deep, absorbing questions about religion, love, home, and meaning.
Allegra Goodman’s novels include The Cookbook Collector, Intuition and Kaaterskill Falls. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and Best American Short Stories. She is a winner of the Whiting Writer’s Award and a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Read her review of World and Town:
Gish Jen sets her novel in a small Vermont town, but extends her reach to the larger world when she writes about Hattie Kong and her new neighbors, a Cambodian family trying to start over after suffering from the traumas of war and the temptations of American city life.
Hattie has retreated to Riverlake in part for solitude, but she finds herself caught up in her neighbors’ struggles. Teenagers Sarun and Sophy try to forge American identities, even as their parents fear for their lives and souls. Slowly, Hattie begins to understand her neighbors’ history, and she sees that they are living with ghosts from their terrible past. At the same time, Hattie’s first love, Carter, appears on the scene, and she must come to terms with ghosts of her own.
I love the voices in this book--each compelling, each contributing to the layered story. I love Gish Jen’s sense of history as both personal and political, intimate and communal. The novel is powerful but also subtle and wise in its use of multiple points of view. It’s a book that begins with grief: Hattie is mourning her husband and her best friend, her neighbors grieve for what they lost in Cambodia. But grief is only a beginning. This is really a novel about survival and reconciliation.
Another writer might fall into sentimentality, bathos, or wish-fulfilling fantasy, but Gish never condescends to her characters. Their traumas and their mistakes, their self-deceptions, and their hard-earned victories read as utterly real. You will find yourself swept up and completely absorbed by this polyphonic and immensely moving novel. The world is Gish Jen’s stage. Her town becomes a theater in the round.