The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang is a novel about a tumultuous Chinese American family that runs a restaurant. The three brothers Daguo (the brash and risqué one), Ming (the smart, industrious one), and James (the kind one) all have a strained relationship with their father, Leo. James returns home for winter break at his premed class, where at a train station, gives CPR to a dead man and doesn’t realize he got the man’s bag until it is too late. He arrives in Haven to a party Daguo has set up to try and convince Leo to hand over ownership of the restaurant. Though, Leo is brash and stubborn himself, so relents and at the party tells Daguo he needs to apologize and pay him back for all the unpaid rent. Throughout the week of Christmas Eve Daguo tries to throw another party to desperately win the approval of Leo, James tries to find the bag of the dead man as well as get close with a friend he grew up with, and Ming is trying to avoid all of them because he doesn’t want to identify as Asian. Though, when Leo dies in the freezer, Daguo is put on trial for the death. The proceedings happen, where painful things about familial relationships arise. Ming however isn’t satisfied, so discovers and seeks out one of the other workers, O-Lan (who also turns out to be their long lost step-sister), where it is revealed she killed their father by taking the key from the freezer. Regardless, O-Lan gets away, Daguo is convicted, and James and Ming keep the restaurant afloat while Daguo is gone. There are other subplots in which the family dog goes missing, and some believe the family ate the dog, or the deteriorating relationship between Katherine and Daguo versus the blooming one of Brenda and Daguo.
The story was broken out structurally into two main parts: the week leading up to Leo’s death and then the trial. Within each chapter, which I thought was a fun little addition, were subheadings leading the reader to be slightly more preempted with what was going to happen. I was engaged in the dynamic between the brothers as well as their relationships with their father. I also liked how Chang addressed Asian stereotypes such as the dog eating, the loyalty, the model minority, and worked actively against them. Chang’s language was smooth and precise. Though, I’m still a little confused by the positive outlook of Daguo after he was been locked up. I’d assume through the displays of his extravagance and independence, he’d dislike jail, and yet the end made it seem he enjoyed it. Maybe I didn’t see the proper motivation unfold clearly, which was what held me up. However, overall the story was a fun mystery to think through and I was a big fan of its Asian American elements.
Final Rating: 4/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.