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Jun 14, 2014

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

A simply wonderful story to enjoy

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok
Riverhead Publishing June 2014
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating: 5 stars, new fave

Read my review of Girl In Translation, also by Jean Kwok

From the bestselling author of Girl in Translation, a novel about a young woman torn between her family duties in Chinatown and her escape into the world of ballroom dancing.

Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.

But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.
There is something in Jean Kwok's writing that sinks under your skin and takes shape as it blooms into something unexplainably beautiful. Even though that's not a great sentence, it evokes the nuance of what I want to say, though the author of Mambo In Chinatown does not have any problems with getting her words out. The author has a unique voice with her story telling as she pulls from her own experiences and transports us to a place of completeness and unity with her characters. Her main character of Charlie is a clumsy dishwasher with callouses, yet she becomes an irresistible young woman when allowed to break out of her family's close inner shell.

Charlie's family life is a huge dynamic in the story, as we learn through Charlie's daily tasks the way it is for a family of Chinese immigrants and their offspring assimilating into the scheme of their new world. While Chinese customs may feel strange when I would think about them offhandedly, they are neatly told with a solid purpose and reason throughout the novel and are very intriguing. This is how we become immersed with Charlie and her growing struggles while accepting her intolerant father and her naive sister. As Charlie learns how to become independent, she needs to find a way to do it without alienating all those that she loves, adding to the fact she doesn't have a selfish bone in her body making her a very likable character.

And while the story is definitely character focused, the events of Charlie's life seem a bit like a Cinderella story with a very modern (and Chinese) slant. Following in her mother's footsteps, she learns things about herself she never thought possible, and she even falls in love. As the nobody-dishwasher turns into someone that turns heads, the fabulous writing pulls us into this coming-of-age story and doesn't let go. Once you do get going and begin to feel like Charlie is your new best friend, you won't want to put this book down.

Much like her debut novel, Girl In Translation, Jean Kwok gives us a unique look at a topic I never thought I would be interested in regarding the Chinese culture, and this novel features an added facet of the elite world of ballroom dancing. Once again the author has added her book to my favorites list. I sincerely hope I do not have to wait another four years for another Jean Kwok novel!