The end of summer may be near, but there's still time to squeeze in Jean Kwok's Mambo In Chinatown, a page-turner that will appeal to romantics and optimists. The novel's strength is its quick pace, which ushers the reader through a series of at-times improbable plot twists. This is a book best enjoyed on a lazy afternoon, perhaps on a beach, or at least on a couch with an open window nearby.
Our protagonist is 22-year-old Charlie Wong. She is not the ugliest of ducklings, but she is certainly the least capable. When we meet her, Charlie works as a dishwasher in the Chinatown restaurant where her father is the top noodle maker. She is unable to hold more challenging jobs, and so focuses her energy on supporting Lisa, her intelligent 11-year-old sister.
Lisa, however, refuses to let Charlie waste her life away in the back of a noodle shop. She helps her sister get a job as a receptionist at an uptown dance studio. For Charlie, the position poses as many opportunities as it does challenges. The girls' mother, who passed away eight years prior, was a dancer in the Beijing ballet. Before her death, she taught Charlie the basics — a skill that comes in handy when Charlie messes up yet another dance instructor's schedule and must teach a class herself.
The plot spirals from there: As Charlie comes into her own as a dancer and instructor, her sister takes mysteriously ill. Her father, who blames his wife's death on the failings of Western medicine, subjects Lisa to Chinese treatments that are as fascinating as they are nausea-inducing. Kwok makes frequent references to balance, to yin and yang, using the girls and their father to contrast the various challenges of American and Chinese traditions and their demands.
For some readers, the romance aspect of the novel will be the most gripping. (Will the new, sexy Charlie hook up with the mysterious yet aloof dance star, or opt for a relationship with her humble, unavailable student?) Others, like me, will be more drawn to the myriad ways Charlie and Lisa must balance their Chinese and American identities.
Regardless, this is a novel that will appeal to anyone who loved Center Stage. Dance, romance and family drama — what more could you want in a beach read?Y
Come back Wednesday for a special ATTW interview with Jean Kwok!
Charlie may have grown a lot over the course of Mambo In Chinatown, there's still one thing she definitely can't do: make noodles like her Pa. Luckily, this chow mein recipe should prevent her from resorting to take-out. Perhaps she can even get some of her father's famous noodles and take her homemade, "fake-out" chow mein to the next level.
"FAKE-OUT" CHOW MEIN
- 8 ounces dried Chinese egg noodles
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 2 teaspoons garlic paste
- 4 cups baby bella mushrooms, sliced
- 6 ounces baby spinach
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- Salt to taste
- 2 scallions
- 1/2 tablespoon white sesame seeds
Cook egg noodles according to package directions, then drain and place in a large bowl. Toss with toasted sesame oil to prevent sticking.
Heat a wok over high heat and add the vegetable oil. When the oil is smoking, add garlic and stir fry until fragrant. Brown the mushrooms, cooking for 1 to 2 minutes, then add spinach. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons water to help wilt the spinach. Add the cooked noodles to the wok, then season with light soy sauce and salt to taste. When well-mixed and -seasoned, transfer to serving bowl.
Sprinkle white sesame seeds over the top. Using sharp kitchen scissors, cut scallions thinly on the diagonal over the bowl. Serve hot.
Recipe adapted from Ching He-Huang.
Source: I received a free review copy of Mambo In Chinatown from the publisher, Riverhead Books, in exchange for an honest review.