"In a lot of ways, a country is like a family," says Jade Chang.
We're seated across from one another at a table in her West Hollywood apartment, blithely laying slices of cold butter onto vegan banana bread and discussing her debut, bestselling novel, "The Wangs vs. the World," which charts one Chinese American family's fall from riches to rags, and the epic, cross-country road trip that brings them together again. An attentive hostess, Chang pushes a pot of ruby-colored "seasonal surprise" jam toward me, insistent that I dig in. ("Get like, a whole berry," she says.) She's dressed casually in jeans and a soft gray T-shirt, delicate gold bangles encircling her wrist.
"I usually think about it as a family is like a country, in the sense that a family has its own language, its own laws, its own bill of rights, but I think the opposite is also true," she says. Chang sweeps the hair from her eyes; a native of the San Fernando Valley, she has a short, dark bob, like Louise Brooks with a laid-back California edge. "In that same way that you love your family and you rebel against them, you love them for all the things that you know to be good and true about them, you also feel more hurt and upset at anything they're doing that's not living up to what you hope. That's very true for us in America right now, and always. America loves to feel that way about itself."
"The Wangs," whose chapters toggle between perspectives, inhabiting the experience of each family member in turn, opens with its patriarch. "Charles Wang was mad at America," the book begins, establishing its ambitious scope from the get-go and escalating in terms of conflict, comedy and the challenges of staking one's place in the world from there.
Published in October, it hit bestseller lists across the country and Chang, a first-time author, found herself on television as a guest on "Late Night: Seth Myers." Has the attention been jarring? "Honestly it's just been really fun," she says.
"The Wangs" often walks the line of the tragicomic, but it also rides other tensions — like national identity versus individual identity — as well. Against the backdrop of the financial collapse, Charles Wang, a Chinese immigrant who earned a fortune assembling a cosmetics empire, loses everything, prompting a mad scramble to gather his family and return to China to reclaim his ancestral land. Charles and his wife, Barbara, abandon their foreclosed Bel Air mansion to pick up the kids: Grace, a fashion-conscious teen exiled to a Santa Barbara boarding school; Andrew, a virgin who's spending college working on his stand-up routine; and Saina, a conceptual art star regrouping in the Catskills after a public break-up and a fall from critical grace.
Although she doesn't consider "The Wangs" a comic novel, a gimlet-eyed humor buoys every page. "I just generally think that everything is simultaneously absurd and funny and totally heartbreaking all at the same time," Chang says.
Sipping herbal tea in her apartment — she hasn't moved since the book's success, including talk of a "Wangs" movie — I notice that her plates are charmingly mismatched, and that she's given me the most ornately decorated. Chang, who previously worked as an entertainment journalist, was an editor at luxury magazine "Angeleno" when the market crashed. "It was just this front-row seat for how very wealthy people were responding to this financial collapse that was affecting all of us, the entire country." Inspiration for the novel hit while leaving a lavish Bel-Air launch party for the Trump Tower in Dubai. "It really was this moment [of] fiddling while Rome burns," she said.
"The Wangs" is rife with passages attuned to the talismanic quality of displays of excess: "the thick, buttery leather and polished gold clasp" of a designer purse "became an axis around which the whole chaotic world would spin." But as adept as Chang is at describing the spoils of privilege, "The Wangs" isn't pure candy; there is heart and depth to her work too. A novel at its core about family, it recognizes that regardless of wealth and status "in the end, all we had were the people to whom we were beholden." Chang also credits "The Wangs'" sharp dialogue to her time as a reporter. "When you do an interview, you record someone talking and then you transcribe it, and you're literally writing the way that people actually speak."
Fast-paced and entertaining, "The Wangs" draws urgency not only from its many voices and from the inherent plot of a pilgrimage but from the way it subverts the reader's expectations of an immigrant narrative. "The Wangs" is a fresh take.
"There's a very common immigrant tale of people who come to American and feel out of place, they're always struggling, they feel like they're outsiders. It's always this story of why these people of color are on the outside. … That's absolutely a truth, a worthy story to tell and a necessary story to hear, but I also think that's not the only story," she explains. "I wanted to tell a story where they are absolutely central to the story of this country."
The Wangs aren't outsiders, but rather, consummately American: They are popular, successful, brazen and flagrantly themselves. "'I finally see myself in a book,'" Chang says fans have told her. "And these aren't all super-wealthy kids that lost their fortunes. That's not what they're responding to. It's also not just Asians. It's a wide spectrum of people who feel like some kind of kinship with this story." "The Wangs" are Chinese American, a compound word, both divided and whole, and the immigrant narrative — no matter how you slice it — feels more important now than ever before.
"The weekend after the election I was in New York, I was on this panel," Chang says. "People were upset, and people really wanted to talk about what do we do now. What's the point of comedy? What's the point of trying to write?" I wait. Sunlight spills onto a crammed bookshelf in the living room. Chang, who is already more than a year into her second book, looks energized, smiling. "We started talking about how joy itself is a rebellion, how living unapologetically is an act of defiance."