Book Review: Typical American by Gish Jen

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Typical American by Gish Jen

This book had all the elements I seem to desire in books lately: it’s equal parts character and plot, the language is beautiful but doesn’t weight the book down, and I felt like I got insight into a world I would never have seen otherwise.

This is an immigrant story. An assimilation story. A dream-big story. A learn-from-your-failures story. A love story. It is so many things, and I want nothing more than to spend more time with the Changs.

Another thing I’ve been struggling with in my reading lately: it’s so hard for me to watch characters make bad choices, especially as they know they are wrong and they are not situationally obliged to participate. It starts turning their core into a different shade for me, and I struggle to feel empathy.

Everyone in this book makes bad choices, but I never felt like they were bad people. I never lost my empathy for them, and it was easy to see where the dots connected that brought them to their poor choices. It was so easy to read, and so funny and smart and insightful. I look forward to working through Jen’s entire portfolio of work. I’ve read Mona in the Promised Land as well, although I found Typical American significantly more mature.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“For certainly he felt more attached to them for their having turned abstract – missing them more than he had liked them, the missing being simpler.”

“And then there was another pain too, quieter, weightier, its roots in what everybody knows – that one day a person looks back more than forward, that one day he’ll have achieved as much as he was going to, loved as much as he was going to, been as happy as it was granted him to be. and that day, won’t he have to wonder – was it enough, what he’s lived? Can he call that a life and be satisfied?”

“He wished there were someone to ask, someone who could tell him how much love was the proper amount for a pair of newlyweds, how enthusiastic they should feel about their new duties and responsibilities, where they fell in the spectrum of human attachments.”

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