Both of today’s novels are about far more than romance, but love is certainly one element they share. Another is a strong cultural setting.
Jean Kwok is known by many librarians and teen readers as the author of Girl in Translation, which earned her an Alex Award. Mambo in Chinatown features a slightly older protagonist, but is still a coming-of-age (or coming-into-her-own) set in a Chinese American culture. There was one crucial element that I was unable to fit into my review. In the middle of what is essentially a Cinderella story, Charlie’s younger sister Lisa becomes quite ill, and their father will not allow her to see a Western doctor. Lisa is treated by her uncle, who is a well-known doctor of Eastern medicine in their neighborhood. I mention this because there are definitely teen readers who will be interested in the uncle’s methods and medicines, from scorpions to mushrooms.
Are there teens who watch “Dancing with the Stars”? I don’t hear my students talking about it. But for those interested in any kind of dance, this will be a particularly fun read. Also, like Girl in Translation, there are many autobiographical elements in Mambo in Chinatown, as discussed in a recent NPR Weekend Edition interview. My favorite element of the story is its depiction of the transformation that comes from the joy of pursuing something you truly love — even if it’s really hard work. Many young athletes and artists will relate.
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis takes place within another close community, the Portuguese of Provincetown, MA. It follows two young people from the tragedy that brought them together as children through the next 30 years. This is a long book for a teen to tackle, but for those who relish a story of love and struggle and enjoy a good saga, this is a great recommendation.
It is interesting to read about the author’s experiences writing the novel, especially about discovering her two main characters. Take a look at her interview with fellow author Caroline Leavitt.
KWOK, Jean. Mambo in Chinatown. 384p. Riverhead. Jun. 2014. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9781594632006. LC 2013043639.
Kwok follows up her Alex Award-winning debut, Girl in Translation (Riverhead, 2010) with the story of 22-year-old Charlie Wong, a hard-working, frumpy, and clumsy dishwasher at the restaurant where her father is noodle master. Her mother was a ballerina in Beijing until she married and moved to the United States. She died when Charlie was 14. The protagonist takes care of her younger sister Lisa and their loving but traditional father in New York City’s Chinatown, a neighborhood full of friends and relatives. Charlie never did well at school; Lisa, on the other hand, is studying to win a place at a school for gifted students. One day she persuades Charlie to apply for a receptionist position at an uptown ballroom dance studio. Charlie is shocked to get the job. Then, when an instructor is fired, Charlie is asked to cover. She’s given some dance clothes and instruction, and she’s a natural. The students love her, Charlie is promoted, and her life becomes a whirlwind of training and teaching, all of which she hides from her father. Her studio colleagues persuade her to enter a competition for professional/amateur pairs with one of her students, Ryan. From their first encounter, it is obvious that Ryan and Charlie were meant to be. Fortunately, the obvious hardly takes the pleasure out of Charlie’s uplifting journey toward finding her real self. Young readers will revel in the romance, the sister relationship, and glimpses of Chinese American culture. Most of all, they will love Charlie’s transformation from “ugly duckling” into graceful, confident swan.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
FRANCIS, Patry. The Orphans of Race Point. 524p. Harper Perennial. May 2014. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780062281302. LC 2013031980.
As teenagers in love, the titular orphans Hallie Costa and Gus Silva fall more deeply than most, based on a childhood bond. The emotional weight of the past propels this massive page-turner set among the “Portagees” of Provincetown, Massachusetts. As the theme of love expands into the filial and spiritual realms, the novel broadens and deepens into a multigenerational story about community. Twin pillars of the older generation—Dr. Nick, Hallie’s wise but preoccupied father and the town doctor, and Father Jack D’Souza, a local priest who reluctantly becomes Gus’s role model—each cherish their life’s work that’s about love on a whole other level. Hallie cuts a pretty towering figure herself: a perceptive child, she figures out how to befriend the silent Gus, muted by the violent death of his mother. But when they fall in love years later, her strength of character cautions her away from his problems; refreshingly it’s Gus—the male protagonist—who is beautiful, troubled, and misunderstood. It is he who runs away and she who stays to rebuild. Hallie is memorably drawn: intelligent and caring, she nonetheless lets her heart lead the way. Readers must decide if it got broken along the heroine’s path to true adulthood.—Georgia Christgau, Middle College High School, Long Island City, NY