ARC Review: The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang

The residents of Haven, Wisconsin, have dined on the Fine Chao Restaurant’s delicious Americanized Chinese food for thirty-five years, happy to ignore any unsavory whispers about the family owners. But when brash, charismatic, and tyrannical patriarch Leo Chao is found dead—presumed murdered—his sons discover that they’ve drawn the exacting gaze of the entire town.

The ensuing trial brings to light potential motives for all three brothers: Dagou, the restaurant’s reckless head chef; Ming, financially successful but personally tortured; and the youngest, gentle but lost college student James. Brimming with heartbreak, comedy, and suspense, The Family Chao offers a kaleidoscopic, highly entertaining portrait of a Chinese American family grappling with the dark undercurrents of a seemingly pleasant small town. 

I’m very impulsive when it comes to books and can’t always stop myself from going on a netgalley requesting spree. But that’s how I ended up with this book which is a mix of genres, most of which I don’t read often and probably can’t appreciate even if written well.

First things first, I didn’t even realize this was a retelling of The Brothers Karamazov but I can’t comment on that part because I have no clue about the source material. Other than that, this book is a mix of litfic, thriller and family drama. The writing was engaging enough because I really didn’t put it down much once I started. But it was also pretty slow paced for most of the book and I had many moments of frustration – both at what wasn’t happening and the characters’ actions. I do have to commend the author for capturing a dysfunctional Asian American household with such clarity – the disparity between expectations of the parents and the ideas of the children, navigating the otherness of living in a majority white American small town, the bullying, the fetishizing, the identity crisis, cheating, greed, mental health issues, abandonment – the author touches on many aspects as the story goes by and most of it felt authentic, not just surface level. But that’s where I think whatever I liked about the book ended. There was quite a bit of emphasis on the sexual capabilities and desires of the men of the Chao family and whether it was the writing, or just my gradual understanding of my own asexuality, I felt very uncomfortable reading those parts of the story.

I also just couldn’t like the characters. I agree that characters don’t have to be likeable for a reader to enjoy a book, but maybe I’m not that objective of a reader. Firstly, the patriarch of the Chao family, Leo is a greedy cheater of a husband and an abusive father and I hated him a lot. His wife Winnie is a stereotypical Asian wife and mom who dedicates her life to her husband, children and their work, despite all the issues – I sympathized with her predicament but it also reminded me too much of real life which I wasn’t ready for. Their three sons Dagou, Ming and James are products of their upbringing and environment, not always sure of what is it they want and how to move forward with their lives outside of their father’s sphere of influence. Brenda was someone I was apprehensive about but I loved her character arc. Katherine was very loyal and maybe too clingy and I didn’t understand her need to be close to Dagou and the family. There were quite a few other side characters who were small but noticeable presences and I found them all together to be a fascinating and diverse community.

Overall, I think this was an engaging, if slow paced read that you might like if you are in the right mood for it. The mystery doesn’t start until more than halfway through though, so if you are looking for an out and out thriller, this isn’t it. But I liked how the author kept us from guessing the true culprit until she revealed it herself and it was quite a revelation. However, it was a decent family drama which shows the unexpected dark side of immigrant family dynamics and if that’s your jam, pick this up. But despite it all, this book just wasn’t for me. Maybe I should reaffirm my commitment to not reading contemporaries so that I don’t judge them unfairly due to my personal hang ups.

PS: Thank you to Netgalley and WW Norton & Company for providing me with the advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.

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