“When I think about people, I think about space, how much space a person takes up and how much use that person provides,” begins Joan is Okay by Weike Wang. Our narrator is Joan, a thirty-six-year-old Chinese-American whose life happily revolves around the New York City hospital ICU, where she works as a physician. But when her father dies unexpectedly from a stroke, and her mother returns to America from China to “become friends” with her children, and her brother and sister-in-law mount pressure on her to settle down in the suburbs and start a family, and the coronavirus pandemic shuts all life down, Joan is forced to question her workaholism and define her own cultural beliefs.
Binaries give structure and conflict to the story: Joan and her brother, work life and domestic life, America and China, present and past. Where Joan wants nothing more than to be an unnoticed cog in a machine, her brother Fang aspires only to climb ladders. “This is our chance,” he tells Joan during her undergraduate studies at Harvard, “don’t throw it away.” In the present, he and his wife Tami foist their own expectations for family and community over and over on a resistant Joan. Her new next-door neighbor, Mark, does the same but with entertainment—he unloads a green suede chair, then stacks and stacks of books, then an old TV onto her so she can watch Seinfeld and orient herself in American culture. She is perturbed by his eagerness.
Joan feels familiar, if a little exaggerated. (It’s hard to imagine anyone who has gone through at least fifteen years of schooling to not have at least heard of John Steinbeck.) She is one archetype of Asian America, the child of immigrants who strives above all to find control in a country to which her existence has only ever been peripheral. “It wasn’t glory that had drawn me to healthcare but the chance to feel pure and complete drudgery in my pursuit of use,” she explains.
In fact, most characters are archetypes. Fang is a hedge-fund manager with an unspoken inferiority complex, who takes all opportunities to show off his wealth. Reese, one of Joan’s fellow physicians, constantly makes unintentional offhand remarks about Joan’s gender; Mark, though well-meaning, continually oversteps boundaries. “[They were] brought up with different rules,” Joan gripes of Reese and Mark; “yes, push back, provoke, assert yourself, some trouble is good, since the rest of us will always go easy on you and, if anything, reward you for being you.” Whereas she, the daughter of immigrants, “is a daughter of guests, is a part time guest herself, and the best kind of guest goes with the flow.”
But just because the characters are archetypal doesn’t mean they’re simplistic. Forced to contend with conflicting viewpoints on family, work, and identity in one place, Joan begins to articulate her own. She cannot change who she is, and she cannot expect herself to change others. “Why try to explain yourself to someone with no capacity to listen?” Others might find fulfillment in family or marriage; her fulfillment is work. This experience of being misunderstood provides a heightened level of understanding of those around her. When the coronavirus pandemic hits and frustrates Joan’s mother’s attempts to book a flight back to China, and Fang and Tami begin treating her increasingly carefully to entice her to stay, it is Joan who realizes what her mother is unable to say—“Just because I’ve lost my husband doesn’t mean I’ve lost my mind, and what I need help with is not money or food, it is something else entirely.”
The emotional core of the book is built through similar sharp epiphanies. Weike Wang’s writing is precise and measured, just like Joan herself. The prose does not draw attention to itself, as Joan would not want herself as the center of any story, but the characters come alive underneath. Told in a series of brief linked episodes, the story moves seamlessly between Joan’s experiences in the present and her childhood memories, indicating how memory informs experience and present emotion is continuous with past emotion. We slowly realize that the binaries are not so binary after all: Joan cannot be separated from her roots, which are part of who she is. We are right there with Joan as she remembers her father abandoning his frugality to take his family around town in a money-green Mustang for a day. Or as she shares the out-of-place feeling with her mother, who has freshly returned from China, in her brother’s grand gated house in Greenwich. Understated but quietly powerful, these snapshots stay with me long after I’ve closed the book.
In the end, no facet of Joan’s life is left behind. What makes Joan is Okay special is how complex and all-encompassing it is. The story is not just about Joan and her grief, not just about Joan and motherhood, not just about Joan and her work, not just about Joan and her Asian-Americanness—but altogether, a person in her entirety, handled with nuance, an incredible balancing act.
When praising her work ethic, the director of the hospital once likens Joan to a spinning cassette tape, dependable and constant. Joan A to Joan B, Joan B to Joan A. It’s a comparison that denies her directionality. By the end of the story, however, Joan is in a decidedly different place from where she started. Her relationships with her family and coworkers have transformed, and though not all her issues are resolved, Joan is finding her balance. Joan will be okay.
This book was provided as a NetGalley from Random House.