A disorienting, masterful, shape-shifting novel about multiracial identity

Portrait of dark-haired woman with her arms crossed in front of her
Rachel Khong
(Andria Lo 2024)

Book Review

Real Americans

By Rachel Khong
Knopf: 416 pages, $29
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What makes Americans “real”? Is it our competitive drive? Our craving for wealth and status? Our insatiable quest for scientific advancement? Or is it — inevitably — the color of our skin and eyes? This concern spirals quietly, like a double helix, through Rachel Khong’s enigmatic second novel, “Real Americans.”

The thing is, the story opens not in the United States but in China, where we’re plunged briefly into the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guard is closing in, bent on destruction, as a pair of students race to hide a collection of museum relics that includes an ancient lotus seed believed to have been granted to a legendary emperor by a magic dragon. “This seed would grant him his greatest wish,” an unnamed narrator tells us. “But he died that night, while contemplating his options. He might have asked for immortality.”

Book jacket for 'Real Americans' by Rachel Khong

The seed’s significance lies in its dual nature, part mythic, part scientific. “It contains an entire future: roots, stems, leaves, blooms, to seeds once more — encoded” for generations to come. In other words, the seed represents hope, which presumably is why the narrator steals it.

But we can’t be sure, because the next page sweeps us forward and away to New York City on the cusp of Y2K, leaving the seed and museum thieves mysteriously behind. This is not a story that will plant itself in one era, setting or even literary genre. Readers of the opening scene might understandably mistake it for the start of a historical or fantasy novel, but instead, our new narrator, American-born New York University senior Lily Chen, is having a sci-fi moment as time literally stops for her: “A second would refuse to pass as it usually did, and I would find myself trapped … unable to progress beyond a minute or two.”

Lest we think we’re about to plunge into a new version of “The Three-Body Problem,” however, the time lapse, too, is quickly subsumed. Instead of fixating on her quantum anomaly, Lily focuses on flecks of toothpaste stuck to the bathroom mirror, giving “the effect of being in a shaken snow globe.” Her overriding concerns are income and ambition, two resources in perilously short supply as she makes ends meet by walking “a Chihuahua with limbs like chicken wings” and standing in line to buy upscale cupcakes for a rich woman “whose schedule could not accommodate the wait.” Lily’s nemesis is not time but life as a “real” American.

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All that’s about to change, though, as she arrives at a holiday party where she’ll meet Matthew, a “distractingly hot” blond, blue-eyed investment banker with greater wealth than this daughter of immigrant Chinese American geneticists can even process. As Matthew caps off their first date by treating Lily to a midnight trip to Paris, this rapidly hybridizing novel acquires traits of a chick-lit fairy tale.

Disorienting as this narrative shape-shifting can be, Khong’s straddling of multiple literary genres insidiously mirrors her focus on hybrid racial and cultural identity. We are all woven, this structure implies, from unpredictable strands of influence and substance. The mistake is to believe that we can force this complex nature-nurture synthesis in a chosen direction.

And yet, that’s precisely the enterprise to which Lily’s mother, May, the geneticist who once stole an ancient lotus seed, has devoted her career. By mastering nature, she meant to outsmart it. “We would study how the lotus understood time. Understood is not the right word — it’s a human word. How did a lotus know to open in the day and recede into water at night? I say know — again, the wrong word. Understanding, knowledge — it was what we wanted, not the lotus, which only did what it did without our human anxieties.”

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Those pesky human anxieties will not cooperate. As a host of perplexing coincidences emerge in the wake of Lily’s marriage to Matthew, the revealed truth and consequences of May’s research divide mother and daughter.

Khong manages these twisting threads with masterful deftness. What, she keeps us guessing, is the source of Lily’s lifelong distrust of May? What is the true history between Lily’s mother and Matthew’s stratospherically rich and powerful father? Why, when Lily has a son, does the baby show an uncanny resemblance to his blond, blue-eyed father and none at all to Lily? And why does time continue to pause, not just for Lily, but also for her son Nick, and for May?


The cryptic theme of time runs like an erratic current through every layer of this complicated tapestry. When Lily is fuming over her mother’s lateness on her wedding day, she remembers how her father would counsel, “Let her have a moment. Have a moment, as though time weren’t all of ours, as though a moment could belong to one person.”

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For May, however, time is very much a finite commodity. “In Chinese, giving a clock is bad luck. It suggests the end. In giving a clock, you’re reminding someone of the reality, the eventuality, of their time running out.” It had pained May when Lily, as a child, gave her a watch. “My daughter, the American girl — of course she didn’t know.”

And yet, Lily never feels like a real American. Nor does Nick, later growing up with her as a single mother on a rural island in Washington, view her that way. On the contrary, the substance of Lily’s identity sets her apart. “It was what made her different,” the teenage Nick reflects, “from the many people who lived here: her realism.” As he saw his mother, she “never described herself as an outsider, she just was one... . From the perimeter, she could see what was invisible to everyone in the middle.”

The stylistic grace of Khong’s prose suggests that she, too, has this capacity to notice the invisible. That island where Lily has chosen to raise Nick? It’s “thirty-seven square miles of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine and Sitka spruce, with their mossy arms raised exuberantly and madly upward, like conductors before orchestras.” In New Haven, where Nick attends Yale, the sky is “pink as a cheek.” And when May finally tells her own full story, she remembers her village childhood as “a dog’s pink tongue on my hand. A classmate playing a lively song on a homemade flute. Climbing the dove tree, with its profusion of birdlike blooms.” The library where she stole that ancient seed was a warm room that “smelled of scalp and pencil lead and old books.”

One of those books was doubtless the “Tao Te Ching,” which contains one of Lao Tzu’s most famous adages: “When you are content with what you have, you are richest without knowing it.” The question at the heart of this irresistible puzzle of a novel is whether “real” Americans can ever stop striving long enough to claim this fortune. Or will we follow the emperor’s example and die forever contemplating our options.

Aimee Liu’s most recent novel is “Glorious Boy.”