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Book Review:
Two novel recommendations

The Fourth Child and The Family Chao

Jessica Winter and Lan Samantha Chang, both 2022

I've recently read two outstanding novels back to back, a rare occurrence as many novels start off great but ultimately disappoint. It's a tough genre to excel in, and this includes for novelists with big reputations. My batting average in picking novels is not better than one in three, and that's after scanning reviews to weed out stinkers. Obviously tastes vary, and my wife's book club was so turned off by one of my recommendations, they refuse to listen to my recommendations, so be warned.  


The novels I loved are The Fourth Child by Jessica Winter, an editor at The New Yorker, about an anti- abortion activist who adopts ( without informing her husband) an impossible to raise young child from Eastern Europe; and The Family Chao  by Lan Samantha Chang, about a fractious Chinese family who own a restaurant in Haven, Wisconsin. 


I had read a couple of positive reviews of The Fourth Child, but was unprepared for a novel with such psychological acuity and intelligence on practically every page. Winter's novel is "take no prisoners" ruthless. She has a phenomenal ability to imagine the inner lives of female characters of all ages. She lacks the same curiosity re males.  Her portrayal of American adolescents is enough to scare any sensible person. The political themes up the ante in this novel which puts all the characters in deep emotional waters and dramatizes their efforts to swim - or sink.  


I had never heard of The Family Chao before reading a brief blurb in the New York Times Sunday Book Review touting the novel as a mystery, not false exactly, but a misrepresentation of its strengths. The mystery part is transparent, but the embroiled family dynamics have hard to plum depths that intertwine personal narratives, family stories and cultural preoccupations in a tight knot. Chang is compassionate toward her characters in a way that Winter is not, but that doesn't mean she lets them off the hook. Everyone in the Chao family and their intimate others pay through the nose for misdeeds, committed or imagined.  Their collective imaginative framework holds them in a tight embrace.        

-- Dee Wilson

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