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Meet the Wongs

THE LOVE WIFE

By Gish Jen

Knopf, $25, 379 pp

Reviewed by JOHN FREEMAN

Gish Jen's two previous novels charted the evolution of a Chinese-American family from fresh-off-the-boat sweat and toil to high-end suburb success. Her latest, The Love Wife, throws a new wrench _ and a new family _ into the mix.

Meet the Wongs. Carnegie is the son of a wildly successful real estate entrepreneur who escaped from mainland China by swimming across the harbor to Hong Kong. Understandably, Mrs. Wong has little sympathy for whiners. Even though Carnegie hates his mother's capitalism, he does live up to her standards _ or so it would seem _ by marrying a curvy American girl his mother dubs Blondie. They crank out a few babies and get their own house in the 'burbs.

Domestic bliss gets a wrinkle when Mama Wong dies and her will deeds that a relative must come from the provinces to work as Carnegie's nanny for two years. And thus we meet Lan, an ascetic and elegant young woman who seems like she might just be there to do Mama Wong's bidding from the great beyond. She gives the Wongs' two daughters a tutorial in their Asian roots and in short time has Carnegie second guessing his marriage vows.

Jen has always been a terrific humorist, and she excels once again at skewering the topsy-turvy politics of hyphenated life. Is Carnegie supposed to respect the wife he loves or this "relative" from China? If adaptation is the name of the game, then why is his mother tossing him this throwback to the life she once lived?

Narrated in round-robin style, The Love Wife shows us each side of these issues without explaining too much. Were it not for the book's unfortunate breakdown in the last 100 pages, it would stand as Jen's best novel yet.

John Freeman of New York is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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