April 29, 1991 12:00 PM

by Gish Jen

This terrific debut novel by Stanford Business School dropout Gish Jen will undoubtedly be compared to Amy Tan’s 1989 best-seller, The Joy Luck Club. Both books are written by young (Jen is 35) Chinese-American women. Both are about immigrants coming to know America. Both are wise yet sweet, hopeful yet knowing.

Jen’s novel is about Yifeng Chang, a scholar’s son who leaves Maoist China to study in the U.S. Nicknamed Ralph, Chang weds a Chinese woman who has already fallen for American ways. They have two daughters; Ralph becomes a professor; Helen keeps house. So far, so perfect. The Changs are the American dream incarnate.

Enter Grover Ding, a glib, self-made millionaire. Seducing both the wife (with romance) and the husband (with promises of wealth), Grover turns the Changs into “typical Americans” by giving them the secrets of American success: ” ‘You can sell anything if it smells right.’ ” Soon, Ralph becomes proprietor of Ralph’s Chicken Palace, a fast-food eatery of dubious quality.

Jen’s novel is full of winning ironies, but it has a bleak side. While the baseball-fan Changs jokingly call themselves “Chang-kees,” when they go to a game, people tell them “to go back to their laundry.” But they persevere, devoted to xiang banfa—”to find a way”—even if the lesson is hard: “A man was the sum of his limits; freedom only made him see how much so. America was no America.” (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95)

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