Across a Green Ocean, by Wendy Lee
Across a Green Ocean, by Wendy Lee. Kensington (2015), Paperback, 288 pages.
A family novel by a Chinese American woman about an immigrant widow and her adult children, each struggling alone to understand who they really are, even when it leads to a trip back to China.
Ling Tang and her husband had come to New York City where they met and married. He was a quiet man, unwilling to speak of his life in mainland China before he came to the United States. When he dies after over thirty years of marriage, his widow is able to maintain herself in their suburban home in New Jersey, but fells lonely and adrift. Both her children have lives of their own in New York City, and their ties with her are strained. Emily, the older child, is married and immersed in her career as an immigration lawyer. Her determination not to have children is creating a break from her husband. Michael is gay and was estranged from his stern father. He journeys back to Xining, in Qinghai Province, northwestern China to try to learn about his father.
Like the young people in her book, Wendy Lee’s parents migrated to the United States from China. She grew up in California. After college she taught English in Xining, an experience that provided her with the rich detail about the city and region around it. This was my favorite section of the book. It could only have been written by a person who had first-hand knowledge of the place. Through Lee’s eyes, we experience what the city felt like to a person of Chinese heritage but from the United States and how her character’s time there helped him quiet some of his own demons. Unlike many books by and about immigrants, Lee’s book does not focus on culture or treatment by mainstream society. She focuses instead on the personal narratives of individuals. While her main characters are shaped by immigration, the stories she tells have strong universal themes. The search for identity, the need for family and roots, and generational conflicts are something many of us have experienced. Being gay may not be universal, but it is certainly something we are coming to accept and something Lee writes about with sensitivity. This book resembles Certainty, by Madeleine Thien, in downplaying ethnicity and race.
Across the Green Ocean is an excellent book, and one I gladly recommend to others.