Real Americans A novel

Rachel Khong, 1985-

Book - 2024

"An exhilarating novel of American identity that spans three generations in one family, and asks: What makes us who we are? And how inevitable are our futures?"--

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Domestic fiction
New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2024.
Main Author
Rachel Khong, 1985- (author)
First ddition
Physical Description
399 pages ; 25 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

In 1999, New York City college student Lily is scraping by with an unpaid internship when she meets the impossibly handsome, unfathomably wealthy Matthew. She abruptly cuts off their romance when their class differences overwhelm her, but fate intervenes. They marry and have a son, who appears to have none of Lily's Chinese American heritage, looking like blond-haired, blue-eyed Matthew. Narrating the novel's second part, teenage Nick doesn't know his father's identity or why he isn't in their lives, and, pushed by his best friend, endeavors to find out. The book's final and most staggering third is voiced by May, the scientist mother Lily has been estranged from since a shocking revelation following Nick's birth. And so readers learn what Lily may never: the story of May's life, beginning in a rural Chinese rice farm, surviving famine and worse, and achieving her goal of attending university in Beijing until Mao's Cultural Revolution forced her to make an impossible choice. While in many ways a far cry from Khong's wonderfully spare debut, Goodbye Vitamin (2017), this plot-rich, spiraling, multigenerational epic possesses the same heartrending humanity and deceptively subtle portrayal of characters' unseen depths--so impossible to relate, so essential to everything. As in life, the love is in the details.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Khong returns (after Goodbye, Vitamin) with an impressive family drama. It opens in 1999 with 22-year-old narrator Lily, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, scraping by in New York City on an unpaid internship. When she meets über-wealthy and über-handsome Matthew it feels like a fairy tale, but a sense of imbalance between them remains as their relationship develops. Khong then fast-forwards to 2021, when Lily and Matthew's son, Nick, is a teenager. Lily and Matthew are no longer together or even in contact, though it's unclear why. Disconnected from his family history, Nick struggles to understand his identity. He reconnects with Matthew but finds the dynamic strained and ultimately relocates to San Francisco, where he crosses paths with his maternal grandmother, May, who narrates the novel's third section, set in 1960s China. Young, ambitious May (then called Mei Ling) attends Peking University on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Khong is both a perceptive prose stylist and an accomplished storyteller, and she shines brightest when portraying differing cultural styles of parental love ("It wasn't American," Nick thinks at one point, "for to love as much as she did"). Khong reaches new heights with this fully-fledged outing. Agent: Marya Spence, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Apr.)

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A sweeping exploration of choice, chance, class, race, and genetic engineering in three generations of a Chinese American family. Khong's follow-up to her sweet, slim debut--Goodbye, Vitamin (2017)--is again about parents and children but on a more ambitious scale, portraying three generations in what feel like three linked novellas, or somehow also like three connected gardens. The first begins in 1999 New York City, where Lily Chen stands next to a man at an office party who wins a big-screen TV in the raffle. He insists she take it; he is Matthew Maier, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, and has all the TVs he needs. On their first date, they go to Paris after dinner, and as this section ends, they've had their first child. The second part of the book moves to 2021 on an island off the coast of Washington state. It's narrated by Lily's now-15-year-old son, Nick; his father is nowhere in sight, at least for now. The closing section unfolds in 2030 in the San Francisco Bay Area. It's told by Lily's now elderly mother, May, with an extended flashback to her youth in China during the Cultural Revolution and her first years in the U.S. As a budding scientist, May was fascinated by genetics. Of the lotus flowers she studied at university, she observes, "Raindrop-shaped buds held petals that crept closer, each day, to unfurling. As humans we were made of the same stuff, but their nucleotides were coded such that they grew round, green leaves instead of our human organs, our beating hearts." This concern for how and why we turn out the way we do animates the book on every level, and along with science, social constructs like race and class play major roles. Every character is dear, and every one of them makes big mistakes, causing a ripple effect of anger and estrangement that we watch with dismay, and hope. Bold, thoughtful, and delicate at once, addressing life's biggest questions through artfully crafted scenes and characters. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

BEIJING, 1966 She isn't afraid, but he is. They stand, in the darkness, before a glass case of old things. A Ming dynasty inkstone. A chrysanthemum carved from horn. A Song painting stamped with ruby-red collector's seals. And on a silk pillow, so slight it could be missed: an ancient lotus seed with a legend behind it. The story goes like this: One night, long ago, a dragon emerged from the sky and dropped this seed into the emperor's open hand. His advisors huddled near to examine it. What fortune! they remarked. This seed would grant the emperor his greatest wish. Unfortunately, he died that night, while contemplating his options. He might have asked for immortality. She takes a hammer from her knapsack. With all her strength, she strikes the glass. It makes a beautifully clear sound as it shatters. Quickly, the two get to work, securing the relics. It is an attempt to spare them from the Red Guards' destruction--an act of protest, small, against a movement she's no match for. The seed is unspectacular, so old it resembles a stone. Yet she's aware it contains an entire future: roots, stems, leaves, blooms, to seeds once more--encoded, like she is. Her heart pumps blood, her lungs take in air, she sleeps, wakes, eats, excretes. Will her life be long or short? What has she chosen, she wonders, and what has chosen her? She likes the fragrance of gardenias, but not the scent of lipstick. She doesn't mind the rain. She is in love, which feels, to her, at once easy and hard, elemental and ungraspable--like vanishing and eternity at the same time. She wants to ask of every person she meets: Is it this way for you? "Hurry," her companion says. A door slams, loudly. Someone is here. The footsteps draw closer. They flee. Outside, she opens her fist. On her bleeding palm rests a stolen seed. The story is fiction. And yet: Why shouldn't the wish be hers? Excerpted from Real Americans: A Novel by Rachel Khong All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.