The heroine of Jean Kwok’s 2010 debut novel, “Girl in Translation,” was a Hong-Kong born, academically gifted New York girl who confronted the obstacles of language, poverty, and family. Living in a vermin-infested apartment and working in a garment sweatshop, she relied on schooling for upward mobility and couldn’t afford to let romance get in her way.
By contrast, “Mambo in Chinatown,” Kwok’s second novel, is a full-blown Cinderella tale, where everything comes out right in the end, no matter how improbable the plot twists required.
This time, the protagonist and narrator is Charlie Wong — older (22), American-born, and seemingly untalented. When she was 14, her ballet-dancer mother died, and the rest of her world changed for the worse. “The other kids ignored me, the teachers found me to be a silent problem, sullen and unresponsive at the back of their rooms,” she reports. “I was tactless, too honest, hopeless at pretending, and I was also miserable.”
When we meet her, Charlie is toiling long hours as a dishwasher at a Chinatown restaurant where her father, “Pa,” is the star noodle maker. She also assumes quasi-parental responsibility for her much-younger sister, Lisa, the family scholar.
Charlie dreams of escape from her life as a drudge and discovers it when she answers an advertisement for a receptionist at an Upper East Side dance studio. Despite her unprepossessing appearance — she’s dressed in grandmotherly hand-me-downs — she gets a pass to enter this magical world. She’s a terrible receptionist, but since this is a fairy tale, that turns out to be a fortunate twist of fate: When she botches the schedule, she is serendipitously offered the chance to fill in as a dance teacher.
Predictably, on the dance floor, Charlie is a natural. (It helps that her mother once schooled her in ballet and that she has since immersed herself in tai chi.) More important, she begins to see (and embody) “beauty as something that could be unleashed from within a person rather than a set of physical features.”
Like the superior “Girl in Translation,” “Mambo in Chinatown” has a propulsive narrative drive and tells an often compelling tale of East-West conflict, adaptation, and assimilation. But its character development is paltry, and the narrative flirts too often with melodrama.
Kwok’s writing is simple and clean, devoid of literary flourishes, built for speed. The supporting characters mainly serve the plot, and the men in particular seem like stick figures. In the contest between East and West, the Old World fares poorly. Pa is an astonishingly absent father, prudish and traditional, preoccupied with grief and work. His brother, Uncle Henry, a practitioner of Eastern medicine to whom the family defers, dispenses disgusting and dubiously effective remedies to a naïve clientele. He collaborates with a woman called the Vision, a fraudulent psychic. To repay an old family debt, Lisa spends her afternoons working without pay in Uncle Henry’s office, in what amounts to indentured servitude.
Kwok, herself a Hong Kong immigrant, studied English at Harvard and earned an MFA at Columbia. But in between, she worked three years as a professional dancer. That experience lends an authenticity to her portrayal of the rituals, routines, and rules of the subculture of professional dance — the book’s most engaging and original aspect.
Charlie, the one character we really come to know, is a self-confessed compound of longings and insecurities. A few turns around the dance floor, though, and she metamorphoses from ugly duckling to lovely swan. She may be learning to mambo uptown (not in Chinatown, as the title suggests), but her growing confidence and skill as a dancer will transform her entire life. She will even get to choose her very own Prince Charming: either a brilliant and seductive professional dancer who could jumpstart her career, or a dashing and possibly unavailable student partner, whose attentions could cost her her job.
Meanwhile, though, there are problems at home. Under stress as she studies for competitive high school entrance exams, Lisa has nightmares, begins to wet her bed, suffers from headaches and dizziness, and loses control of her legs. Lacking health insurance and suspicious of Western medicine, Pa sends her to Uncle Henry and the Vision, and even contemplates packing her off to China. His obtuseness and refusal to consider standard diagnostic tests, or even a physician visit, is likely to frustrate even the most patient of readers.
Nevertheless, they will probably keep turning the pages, if only to see whether (and how) true love, friendship, ballroom dancing, and modern medicine can indeed conquer all.