Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok

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Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: Charlie leaves her kitchen job to work in a dance studio, but can she live up to the glamour of the place? An intriguing and perfectly executed look at life as a Chinese American living in New York.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: July 2014
Publisher: Riverhead
ISBN: 978-1594633225

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The daughter of an immigrant noodle maker, who lives with her father and younger sister in a one room apartment in Chinatown, is not the sort of person you might imagine as a skilled and elegant dancer. And, indeed, Charlie isn’t any of those things as we meet her. By day she washes pots in her father’s restaurant, by night she encourages her sister Lisa to succeed in school and succeed in a way that Charlie herself wasn’t able to. But she dreams of more, and when an entry level job at a dance school is advertised, she suddenly wants it more than anything she’s ever wanted, ever.

Forget the fact she sucks as a receptionist. Forget the fact her father with never allow it. Forget everything except that her mother was a fantastic ballerina before she died. And that must count for something, right?

This book seamlessly weaves so many worlds, from the dark, heady streets of Chinatown to the effortless grace and glamour of ballroom dancing. We watch Charlie as she struggles to reconcile old with new, both at work and in her family life. When her sister becomes ill, she must decide whether to stick with the traditional practices she knows or reach further into the unknown world of modern, western medicine. Is it worth it to save her sister if, at the same time, it will tear her family apart?

I found this one so, so difficult to put down. It is clearly authentic – the author is an Asian immigrant to New York herself, and was a professional ballroom dancer too – and this shines through. The presentation is perfect, with intricacies of the culture explained but integrated into the story rather than added in as an afterthought, like a foot note, and I learnt so much without realising I was being taught. When I read books about NYC I like to relive my time in the city, the sights, the sounds. This book was different, not because it could have been set anywhere, but because it was clear Charlie didn't often venture out of her corner of Chinatown, so wider references to the city would have made little sense. This is not a girl who spends her weekends picnicking in Central Park and nor is she one who will be seen at an exhibition at the Met or watching the Mets play.

I wasn’t expecting this book to have the plot twists it ultimately did, and just like finding money on the street I was thrilled by the surprise. Once titbits were revealed I quickly jumped to a conclusion that was almost but not entirely correct, prompting a second Oooooh! moment. Afterwards, I regaled the story to the Boy over dinner. Luckily it was a 4 course affair because it took me some time to explain why it was so wonderful. Saying it’s about a girl who escapes her Chinese upbringing for a new job in a ballroom dancing studio just really doesn’t do it justice.

I absolutely adored this read. It was so real, so genuine, so heartfelt, and Charlie gained by respect as opposed to my sympathy as I got to know her. I will be recommending this one far and wide, to both my Chinese friends and those from other backgrounds, and it’s certainly one I’ll be reading again.

Many thanks go to the publishers for supplying this book.

I must have read several hundred books in between, but this one took me right back to the time I read The Red Thread by Ann Hood which is another must-read. You might also enjoy Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay.

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Buy Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok at Booklists.jpg Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok is in the Top Ten General Fiction Books of 2014.


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