The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

Do you ever wish you could read some classic Russian literature, updated for the 21st century but still retaining that essential everyone-ends-up-unhappy, nihilistic vibe? Look no further than The Family Chao, the newest offering from Iowa Writers’ Workshop maven Lan Samantha Chang! However, if you aren’t familiar with Dostoevsky’s parricidal classic The Brothers Karamazov, fear not–The Family Chao is still a good read, and you will be surprised with the twist at the end.

The Chao family are five: parents Leo and Winnie, who migrated to the U.S. from China and run the Fine Chao restaurant in Haven, Wisconsin; and sons Dagou, Ming, and James. As the story opens, Winnie has recently left the womanizing Leo, and the sons have all returned to Haven for the restaurant’s annual Christmas party. Each son has a complicated relationship with his parents. Dagou, a gifted chef, works at the restaurant but struggles with the demands and cruelties of the temperamental Leo. Ming is a very successful real estate broker in New York who wants to bury his Chinese heritage entirely. College freshman James loves his family deeply but is pulled in different directions by his loyalties to father, mother, and brothers.

When Leo Chao is found dead the morning after the Christmas party, the question is not who had motive to kill him, but rather who didn’t? What follows is not a whodunit in a traditional sense, but rather a family drama that happens to involve a murder. The characters–especially young James–are brilliantly drawn and vibrantly real, and the reader empathizes with each of them in turn. The twist ending will surprise non-Dostoevsky readers, and even satisfy those of us who knew what was coming. Just don’t look for anybody to end up happy; we all know that it is better to be content than to be happy, anyway.

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC CHANG)

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