26 September 2023

Joan is Okay

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By Weike Wang, Text, $29.99.

Much like the protagonist of Weike Wang’s debut Chemistry, Joan is the child of Chinese immigrants. But while the protagonist in Chemistry was having trouble getting her life together, Joan is very much in control of hers, possibly too much control. Joan’s world only starts to unravel a little when her father dies and she has to re-evaluate her life.

Joan is a resident in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) in a New York hospital. She is known for her work ethic, often taking other people’s shifts and working long hours. Joan lives by herself in a sparsely furnished New York apartment and has only occasional contact with her parents who have moved back to China and her brother who lives a train ride away in Connecticut. When her father dies, Joan flies with her brother back to China but stays just for the weekend. This is 2019 and not long after rumours around a new virus spreading in China start to emerge. Later Joan’s mother comes to stay with her brother’s family and gets caught in the US by Covid-related travel restrictions. Meanwhile, Joan is required to take bereavement leave by the hospital and needs to deal with a new over-friendly neighbour.

As with Chemistry, Wang is interested in the Chinese-American experience, the view of Chinese people by mainstream Americans and the way Americans of Chinese descent are often made to feel by the society around them. Issues particularly thrown into relief with the spread of Covid and its connection to China.

Joan starts the book as a peculiar, straight-laced character but Wang subtly exposes her depths and her pain in ways that allow readers to understand the protections that she has built around herself. Wang follows Joan as she deals with her grief while also having the continue to manage her relationships with the people around her. And while Joan is the central concern, Wang also provides insight into the very different the journeys of Joan’s brother, her sister-in-law and her parents. All of which makes Joan is Okay another deep, insightful, compassionate and moving story from Wang.

Over 750 more reviews can be found on Pile by the Bed.

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