Mothers and Daughters
A—funny—novel of marriage, career, and ethnic identity.

 

By Caren Lissner | One can tell if a novel transcends its genre by reading the first two sentences—if the character’s full name is in there, especially in proximity to the full name of a potential love interest, it’s your garden-variety plane read, mystery, or romance. Caroline Hwang’s charming novel, In Full Bloom, takes an intelligent and interesting approach right off the bat instead, subtly bringing us, through mother/daughter dialogue, into the main points of the story: Ginger Lee, a single 27-year-old assistant at a New York fashion magazine, has just found out that her mother moved to the city to make sure Ginger will find and marry a nice Korean man. Ginger isn’t even sure she wants to ever get married—and she has only been attracted to white men her entire life.

But rather than focusing entirely on the single-girl aspect or the fashion magazine aspect, as similar books in the single-girl or “chick lit” genre have done recently, Hwang’s suspenseful story is steeped in Ginger’s own ambivalence over her heritage, in her confusion over the fact that she’s proud of her background yet fears people who are too “Korean-y” or not assimilated enough. The dichotomy affects her relationship with her mother, her estranged brother (whom their mother sadly disowned and lost touch with because he married a white woman), her potential suitors, an engaged man whom her mother plots for her to steal, and her co-workers.

As the main character gingerly (get it?) tries to navigate a relationship with her overprotective but (to the reader) utterly enchanting mother, yet maintain her independence, we are guided through a well-written tale of tradition, self-identity, and relationships. There is a nice helping of humor, and many touching moments—particularly when it becomes most clear that the old-fashioned mother, despite her pushiness, loves her daughter very much.

Mrs. Lee tells her daughter at one point, in her broken English, “I don’t know why American want Korean husband,” when she is angry that a white woman is going to marry the Korean doctor she wants for Ginger. “They just bossy and lazy and ask where dinner is.”

“And yet you want one for me,” Ginger replies.

“I just talking,” her mother responds sheepishly.

The mother-daughter interaction is the strong point of the book. The main failing is the routine subplot about Ginger trying to advance her career. Ginger’s cohorts aren’t differentiated much and don’t have the quirks of Ginger’s mother, her newfound friend (and unlikely bachelor) Bobby Oh, and the people she deals with outside the office.

A big revelation in the novel ultimately comes on a bad date, even though there are very few dates in the book. When Ginger’s mother sets her up with the most Amer-icanized Korean man she’s ever met, Yeung-rok doesn’t share Ginger’s issues and ambivalence. He is proud of his culture and name even if he has a white brother-in-law and worships pro football players. “You’re self-loathing,” he tells Ginger toward the end of their date, thus awakening a sudden recognition in herself of something the reader already suspected. Without getting too serious, the book subtly looks at the challenge of reconciling assimilation with ethnic pride.

Caren Lissner C’93 is editor of the Hudson Reporter newspapers. Her first novel, Carrie Pilby, was excerpted in the July/August issue.

2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03

ALL THINGS ORNAMENTAL : The Arts

Art: Patti Smith’s drawings at the ICA

Books: Uniforms. What to wear

Books: In Full Bloom. Mother knows best?

Interview: I’m “with” George—co-author Nate Chinen


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