Synopses & Reviews
From the much-loved author of Whos Irish?
and The Love Wife,
a world-sized novel set in a small New England town.
Hattie Kong—the spirited offspring of a descendant of Confucius and an American missionary to China—has, in her fiftieth year of living in the United States, lost both her husband and her best friend to cancer. It is an utterly devastating loss, of course, and also heartbreakingly absurd: a little, she thinks, “like having twins. She got to book the same church with the same pianist for both funerals and did think she should have gotten some sort of twofer from the crematorium.”
But now, two years later, it is time for Hattie to start over. She moves to the town of Riverlake, where she is soon joined by an immigrant Cambodian family on the run from their inner-city troubles, as well as—quite unexpectedly—by a just-retired neuroscientist ex-lover named Carter Hatch. All of them are, like Hattie, looking for a new start in a town that might once have represented the rock-solid base of American life but that is itself challenged, in 2001, by cell-phone towers and chain stores, struggling family farms and fundamentalist Christians.
What Hattie makes of this situation is at the center of a novel that asks deep and absorbing questions about religion, home, America, what neighbors are, what love is, and, in the largest sense, what “worlds” we make of the world.
Moving, humorous, compassionate, and expansive, World and Town is as rich in character as it is brilliantly evocative of its time and place. This is a truly masterful novel—enthralling, essential, and satisfying.
"Jen (The Love Wife) unwinds another expansive story of identity and acceptance, deploying voices that are as haunting and revealing as they are original. Hattie Kong, 68 and full of unresolved longing for her dead husband, her best friend, and an old lover, finds a sort of purpose in the new neighbors, an immigrant Cambodian family. As she nurtures a friendship with the family's teenage daughter, Sophy, Hattie learns the family's secrets. Sophy's father, Chhung, has survived the horrors of Pol Pot, marrying Sophy's mother in a refugee camp and adopting her brother, Sarun. Sarun and Sophy founder in America; Sarun has gang ties, and Sophy becomes involved with manipulative evangelicals. Chhung, isolated and unable to cope with his children, spends his days digging a pit behind their cramped trailer until one day he implodes in an act of horrifying violence. While pondering how to help the family, Hattie discovers much about her own motivations and her place in the world as the daughter of an American missionary and a descendant of Confucius. Jen's prose is unique, dense, and enthralling, and her characters are marvels of authenticity. (Oct.) Da Cunha's War of Canudos gets a commendable new translation by Lowe in a carefully planned and perfectly executed volume. The Brazilian author establishes his knowledge of his country's civil war with an in-depth examination of the geography and climate in the years before and during the infamous bloodshed of the 1890s. He extensively examines the coastal regions, in particular the northeastern state of Bahia where the war took place, and details the history of the Brazilian people, discussing the impact that the varying cultures and racially mixed marriages had on the economy and the settlements occurring then. Most notably, he reflects on the mixing of races between the disappearing natives, the Bantu Negro, and the Portuguese settlers who were prominent at this time. Most chilling is a chronicle of the seemingly insignificant conflict over purchased but undelivered wood that caused a local religious zealot to lash out at the government and start the bloodiest civil war in Brazilian history. Abounding with eloquent passages and vivid images, Da Cunha's considerable work maintains its grim beauty in Lowe's graceful translation. (May)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
Sixty-eight-year-old Hattie Kong, descendant of Confucius, daughter of an American missionary, has lived to see both her husband and her best friend die back-to-back, in a single year: “It was like having twins . . . She got to book the same church with the same pianist for both funerals and did think she should have gotten some sort of twofer from the crematorium.”
But two years later, it’s time for Hattie to start over. She moves to a small New England town, where she is soon joined by a Cambodian American family and an ex-lover—now a retired neuroscientist—all of them looking for their own new lives. What Hattie makes of this situation and of the changing town of Riverlake—challenged as it is, in 2001, by fundamentalist Christians, struggling family farms, and unexpected immigrants—lies at the center of a novel that asks deep and absorbing questions about religion, home, and what “worlds” we make of the world.
Moving, humorous, and broad-ranging, World and Town is rich in character and brilliantly evocative of its time and place. This is a masterful novel from one of our most admired writers.
About the Author
Gish Jen is the author of three previous novels and a collection of stories. The recipient of numerous honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Institute fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, and a Mildred and Harold Strauss Living from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is also a new member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of World and Town, acclaimed author Gish Jen’s brilliantly rendered new novel about a newly widowed Chinese American woman, a retired neuroscientist, and a Cambodian refugee family all starting over, they hope, in a small New England town.
1. The prologue is set in a beautiful and ancient Chinese graveyard in which Hattie Kong’s relatives--descendants of Confucius--are buried, a provocative opening for a book about small-town America. What does this suggest about America today? The section ends with Hattie Kong--Chinese and American, Christian and Confucian--lamenting the passing of an older, simpler order and wondering what she has to replace it. To what degree are her questions uniquely her own?
2. Hattie is the center of this novel, the person through whom all the others connect, but she has her own story as well. Why does she move to Riverlake? What do Lee and Joe represent to her? Why does Sophy mean so much to her? When Neddy Needham, in the first Town Hall scene, asks “Whose town is this?” she wonders, on the side, if it is hers. It is by the end, but how has this change come about?
3. There is a lot of doubling in this book. Chhung feels himself to have been reborn into his brother’s life; Carter Hatch seems scripted to become his father; Hattie is able to leave China thanks to her serendipitous resemblance to a girl who died. Do you see other doublings of characters or situations? What does this suggest about the nature of the self and reality?
4. Vision is a major theme in the book. Hattie’s mother has always told her, “We must see that we don’t see,” and Carter spent most of his career working on the process by which information from the outside world is filtered and made coherent. Vision, as Carter’s father says, goes with blindness, even depends on it. Do you find in the book other forms of seeing that involve blindness? And if what we see might be thought of as a “world,” does this shed light on the title of the book?
5. Hattie, by the end of the book, has embraced a new life, but she has also rejected several modes of being. Though displaced, like her fellow teacher Ginny, and betrayed, she has chosen a different road for herself. Do other characters offer reflections of what Hattie might have become, had she chosen differently? In her youth, Hattie rejects superstition and embraces science; by the end, she has modified her view somewhat. Why?
6. One of the ways in which people in this book try on new selves is by changing their hair. What are some of the things people do to their hair?
7. This book has a main narrative in three parts, with two related narratives inserted into it. What does this suggest about the nature of the main narrative and storytelling generally? Is it definitive? How might it be related to the themes of “world”-making and blindness?