This book won the Edgar award for Best First Novel by an American Author. I agree with this choice.
Francie Lin's writing exceeds expectations. She could have just made her book about an American-Chinese adrift in Taiwan, lost between cultures, which it is. But Lin also contributes ethereal writing and a Kafka-esque sensibility.
Lin's strange names -- Emerson, Little P, Atticus, Grace, Angel, A -- indicate both what you should and should not expect from that character.
Emerson Chang is the narrator. He was born in the United States to immigrants from Taiwan. After his younger brother moved to Taipei and was seldom heard from again, Emerson became his mother's crutch and victim. At the age of forty, he is suspended in life, neither at rock bottom nor at the top. Unmarried, in fact a virgin, uninterested in breaking out of his cocoon, seeking an unfulfilled vision of "purity," and full of a passive-aggressive pity for himself, he first is shaken out of his stupor when his meddling mother dies of a stroke. His father, definitely for the worse, died a long time ago. His mission is to return his mother's ashes for burial in Taipei. His second burden is to divest himself of the repressed anger he feels when he finds his mother has left the family business, a motel, to his long-lost brother. He has lived his life in expectation of achieving freedom through being the best: the best son, the best lover, the best worker, but each expectation thuds to earth as the book reveals Emerson's metamorphosis during his Chinese journey.
What does it mean to be the American-born son of a Chinese immigrant? It means Emerson is caught between cultures, neither one of which is truly his. What does it mean when such a man goes back to the "homeland," whose language and culture he does not understand? It means Emerson's journey is odyssean with an unclear picture of what will emerge in the end.
Emerson easily finds Little P, his younger brother, who seems caught up in a criminal enterprise, the nature of which is not immediately clear. Is Little P victim or malefactor? When Emerson first finds him, Little P is sporting impressive injuries and asks repeatedly for money. As Emerson shadows him or openly travels with him, Little P seems to be in thrall to their uncle, their mother's brother. It is hard to believe Emerson's mother's rectitude could have fallen out of the same genetic stew that produced his unsavory uncle, whose sons are nicknamed "Poison" and "Big One" and who are equally as suspicious.
With the death of his mother, Emerson is no longer defined and he seeks Little P to help redefine himself, to redefine the notion of family, at the very least. Little P is dismissive and angry about Emerson's attempts. It is in seeking to learn what happened to Little P that Emerson meets and is aided by Atticus, an employee of his uncle. Atticus is over-qualified for his job as the uncle's bookkeeper. With discretion, the mysterious Atticus, who seems the model of integrity, tries to steer Emerson to a better understanding of the situation in Taipei. Angel is another Chinese-American, a young woman who has come to work in Taiwan. She is Emerson's angel and helps him out of precarious situations. Grace is a young Chinese woman who wants to learn better English to convince her American boyfriend, A, that she is worthy of his love. Of course, she is unobtainable to Emerson and he transforms her into his Beatrice.
The ultimate question is who is the foreigner? The over-wrought answer is that each of the main characters is in his or her own way. But I've already over-analyzed this book, so we're not going there. Emerson is truly a man without a country, a point pounded home when he loses his passport, or a culture. He doesn't understand his mother, his brother, Angel, Grace, Atticus, or his uncle in any sort of meaningful context. Lin brings us deeper into the muddle with a somnambulant protagonist until almost the very end, the very last pages, when she reveals so many interesting things that tie together what we have been reading. Emerson's journey, in the end, must truly free him or destroy him.
P.S. This book also has one of the best covers and overall design I've seen. MBTB has sold more copies of this book on looks alone. It's a good thing there's substance within!