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"Real Americans" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider

Updated: May 3

This week marks the publication of a certain bestseller—“Real Americans,” by Rachel Khong. It’s a beautifully written novel with rich characters trapped by secrets that affect generations of two families, one Asian, the other American.

Lily is 22, and about to graduate from NYC with no idea what she wants to do in the future. She’s an unpaid intern for a travel magazine, editing photos for its publication. Lily is American, the daughter of parents who immigrated from China. She is the token Asian at the company where her boss Jerry does the hiring. “The other interns were uniformly blonde, round breasted, affable.”

Though Lily feels out of place she decides to attend the company’s Christmas party at a high rise in Manhattan. She’d prefer not to have to see Jerry, but can’t avoid it. He is standing next to a “distractingly hot” young man who looks to be in his 20s. This is Jerry’s nephew Matthew who works in private equity. There’s an immediate attraction between Matthew, 27, and Lily, and they launch into a whirlwind romance.

On their first date, Mathew’s driver picks Lily up to meet Matthew for an expensive dinner. During the meal, he asks her to fly to Paris with him on a private jet. Lily feels like she’s living a dream—once back in New York City, Matthew continues to court her in extravagant ways, a lifestyle Lily is totally unfamiliar with as she faces college debt, and mounting rent, since her roommate has moved out.

As we wait for the shoe to fall, it does. Lily can’t make peace with how different they are, from race to class, how would it ever work? Despondent, she breaks off their relationship. Two years later, the two meet again, and pick up where they left off.

Complications arise because Lily and Matthew have issues with their parents. Lily’s mother May Ling Chen, and father Charles Chen are scientists, committed to their work in genetics. All her life Lily has wondered if her mom, an “unmotherly mother” really even loves her. There is little warmth shown in her parents’ marriage, her mother’s passion for science commanding the lion’s share of her attention.

Matthew’s father, Otto Maier, is incredibly wealthy, an executive in a successful pharmaceutical company. Matthew’s mother committed suicide, and his father has remarried. Matthew wants little to do with his family’s financial success and supports himself on his own salary. He dreads having Lily meet them, but when they get engaged, then married, his hand is forced.

At the wedding, Lily’s mother is standoffish, leaving one to wonder what the problem could be. More questions are raised when Lily finally gets pregnant after three miscarriages, and goes on a business trip to China with Matthew, her mission to visit Peking University and try to connect with anyone who knew her parents when they went to college there.

The second section of the novel takes place in 2021, and focuses on Lily and Matthew’s teenage son Nick, estranged from his father. It’s the least engaging part of the book but leads us to the final, intensely satisfying section set in 2030, in which we learn about May Ling’s background in China as she narrates her story and faces the end of her life.

The “Real Americans” is captivating and begs for a reread. Once you know the secrets that have destroyed the family members’ bonds, it’s intriguing to return to the text wiser, better able to understand the characters’ motives. This is an incredible read, with themes of love, loyalty, deception, and forgiveness. It’s at once heartfelt and heartbreaking.



 

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