As a fan of Ford’s bestselling Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I could not wait to read his latest! And Ford’s powerful poetic storytelling did not disappoint as he traces cascading generations of Chinese women who all descended from Afong May, the first Chinese woman brought to the United States in the early 1800’s. Afong, with her bound feet and singing skills, packs theaters with curious Americans. But her story devolves into tragedy as she not only cannot return home, but gets exploited by her handlers.
Subsequent generations of Moy women all experience similar trauma, both tied to their Chinese nationality. These include Faye Moy, China nurse who gets recruited to help Brits and Americans; Zoe Moy, in a free-wheeling England high school famous for being run based on everyone voting the rules; Lai King Moy, a young girl quarantined in Chinatown San Francisco during a plague outbreak; and Greta Moy, a brilliant start-up tech executive who creates a unique dating app for women to find their soulmate.
Lastly there’s Dorothy, a former poet laureate, who uses her depression and disassociations from reality to infuse her work. She lives in a future Seattle, ravaged by climate change and raging storms. When Dorothy’s five-year-old daughter starts showing similar behavior and both start remembering things that happened to prior generations of women in their family, Dorothy seeks an experimental treatment that has been designed to relieve inherited trauma.
And that brings us to the core philosophical debate woven throughout this novel: whether traumatic experiences can get passed along in one’s genes, much as personality traits can. This real field, called epigenetics, posits that memories and traumas can get passed along the genetic train. Ford buys in whole-heartedly, and his whole novel is an ode to epigenetics being real. I just did not quite buy in but found it both fascinating and something to ponder as I read along. I definitely got side-tracked googling articles about epigenetics!
What carried the book for me was the ultimate resilience of Afong May’s progeny, and immigration story they powerfully bring forward with each successive generation.
Thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for an advanced reader’s copy.