At 74 Stanley Huang is active, dapper and a picture of good health. Back in San Jose from his latest all-inclusive Mediterranean cruise, Stanley is very proud that he has actually lost weight in spite of loading himself with unlimited desserts. But then Stanley begins to have a nagging doubt about weight loss after “twelve days of gastronomic Bacchanalia over international waters. “ A trip to the doctor eventually leads to a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
Stanley’s illness is the starting point for this story which explores fractured family dynamics in the face of a terminal diagnosis. Stanley has a much younger second wife, Mary Zhu (ex-waitress/massage therapist ) a still pissed-off first wife, Linda and children Fred and Kate. A huge question looms over the family. Does Stanley have any money and who will inherit it?
Stanley’s ex-wife, Linda isn’t particularly concerned about Stanley’s diagnosis. She’s “annoyed” by the “revisionist history her children had indulged in ever since Stanley’s diagnosis.” She’s far more concerned with the financial aspect of things. To Linda, Stanley never came through with his promises, and was “lazy and incompetent,” plus terminally unfaithful while she slaved to earn the money for the family.
Even thirtysomething years later, when she’d finally located her courage, had gone and left him, told him that they were going to divorce, leaving him openmouthed and speechless, helplessly steaming in his armchair-even then, he’d managed to come out ahead. Stanley had recovered quickly enough from his brief period of depression, sighing up for a series of elite gym memberships a month after he’d moved out, rebounding shortly after with a sequence of increasingly younger girlfriends. A series of events he’d then capped off by getting remarried with undignified speed. A marriage he couldn’t help but publicize by braying to everyone how happy he was, making it appear as if he was the one who’d left her. Because she was still alone, of course.
Unbeknownst to her children, Linda was the real breadwinner of the family and gave Stanley a generous divorce settlement when his philandering became too much for her to tolerate. Stanley’s assurances of a large inheritance and a family trust do nothing to assuage Linda’s concerns that her feckless ex will prove true to his character—even in his last months. Plus then there’s the second wife who, in spite of her enthusiastic efforts to find miracle cures for her much-older husband, seems almost delighted to hasten him into the grave. Will she get the money or will Stanley leave it all to his children as promised? Here’s Linda taking charge at a dreaded family meeting:
She clicked the pen impatiently. “I want to write the numbers down, so that there’s no confusion. It should be very simple. First you determine your net worth. Then you define a token–that means small, Stanley–amount you give to Mary. Everything else goes to the children.”
“I have to take care of Mary,” Stanley said. “I am everything to her.”
Both of Stanley’s children have considerable problems of their own. Harvard Business School graduate Fred has never made good on his early promise. Former classmates have soared into the company of the 1% but Fred, divorced by his dissatisfied wife, lingers in his profession’s “swampy bottom.” He’s dating Saks saleswoman, Hungarian immigrant Erika. Part of his attraction to Erika is her avarice, but it’s naive avarice. In other words, given his job title and income (over 300K a year) he can snow Erika into thinking he’s far more affluent than he really is.
Stanley’s daughter Kate is struggling with some serious personal problems. She is the sole breadwinner while her husband, Denny, hides out with “the majority of his daylight hours unaccounted for, lazing about in a cozily furnished attic” supposedly gathering investors for his start-up which has yet to materialize.
Linda, Stanley’s ex, has always been the sensible one when it comes to money, and yet, she begins to plunge into the murky waters of internet dating after a conversation with ‘friend’ Shirley, a woman Linda dislikes:
She’d undertaken a through redecoration of both herself and her house after her husband, Alfred, had passed, and each now reflected the Versailles-lite sensibilities of a provincial government official.
This is a tale of Chinese Americans whose lives are driven by status markers. Given the subject matter, death in the face of a terminal diagnosis, it’s bold indeed for this first time author to take a spiky humorous approach. We follow Linda, Fred and Kate’s lives as Stanley’s diagnosis becomes all too real. He grows frailer and frailer while the question of money grows stronger. And as we all know, people are at their worst when money enters the picture.
The back stories of each character were overly detailed and I wanted the story to propel forwards–not backwards, but the moments between the family members were perfect. Here’s Mary Zhu, elevated to nurse status:
“Last week they brought in a special tree bark I ordered; it had to be sent from Hong Kong. I’ve been brewing it into a tea for Stanley. It’s supposed to be very powerful against cancer. For many people, it is a near-instant cure.” She prattled on, detailing all the various acupuncturist, healers, and meditation gurus whose skills were being summoned. Next to her, Stanley preened, lapping it up.
Linda decided she’d had enough. “Please inform your wife that I am a full supporter of Western medicine,” she said to Stanley in English. To her left she heard Kate sigh. But she didn’t care. Lunch was over.
The novel has a lot of energy, and the author clearly has a complex story to tell. I am fascinated by inheritance plots, and if you are too, then you will enjoy this novel that takes a irreverent, humorous look at the question of assets that may or may exist and may or may not be passed to the next generation My attraction to inheritance stories may be a Balzac thing, and/or it may be the fact that I have seen many inheritance scenarios go horribly wrong.