Book Review: MAMBO IN CHINATOWN by Jean Kwok
In Jean Kwok’s follow-up to Girl in Translation, twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong starts out as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Chinatown, where her father is a noodle maker. She has an eleven-year-old sister, Lisa, and all three live together in a tiny apartment, barely scraping by.
One day Lisa sees an ad for a receptionist position at a ballroom dance studio and encourages Charlie to apply for it. The girls’ late mother was a star dancer with the Beijing Dance Academy and this would be a way for Charlie to feel closer to her, having inherited—according to Charlie—none of Ma’s talent and grace.
Through a series of events akin to stars aligning, Charlie gets the job and climbs the ranks to become an instructor, blossoming as she finds passion for dancing, even as she hides her new life from her traditional Chinese father. As a major dance competition approaches, Charlie must decide what—and who—she loves most.
Though there are few surprises in this Cinderella story, Kwok’s writing style is accessible and the main characters likable enough for readers to root for them. Charlie is so self-deprecating and such a hard worker that even if her lucky breaks stretch credulity, I was glad they came her way.
Kwok addresses the internal conflict some Asian-Americans feel as they straddle Eastern and Western beliefs, and the struggle they experience when they want to pursue the arts instead of a more financially stable career. It’s hard to believe Charlie is able to hide her dance job from her father for so long, but it’s easy to understand her reasons for doing so.
I was distracted by the stilted, unrealistic dialogue. Characters tend to speak in a way that sounds like writing instead of conversation. When Charlie confides her troubles to one of her dance students, he replies, “What burdens you’ve been shouldering alone.” The speaker is a young male gardener in contemporary New York City, not a middle-aged professor or someone from the early twentieth century.
But the overall narrative voice is engaging enough for me to enjoy this fairy tale, one with heart and wit and such buoyant descriptions of dance it made me want to sign up for lessons and get my mambo on.
Nerd verdict: Mambo moves well