What We Were Promised

What We Were Promised

by Lucy Tan


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Set in modern Shanghai, a debut by a Chinese-American writer about a prodigal son whose unexpected return forces his newly wealthy family to confront painful secrets and unfulfilled promises.

After years of chasing the American dream, the Zhen family has moved back to China. Settling into a luxurious serviced apartment in Shanghai, Wei, Lina, and their daughter, Karen, join an elite community of Chinese-born, Western-educated professionals who have returned to a radically transformed city.

One morning, in the eighth tower of Lanson Suites, Lina discovers that a treasured ivory bracelet has gone missing. This incident sets off a wave of unease that ripples throughout the Zhen household. Wei, a marketing strategist, bows under the guilt of not having engaged in nobler work. Meanwhile, Lina, lonely in her new life of leisure, assumes the modern moniker taitai-a housewife who does no housework at all. She is haunted by the circumstances surrounding her arranged marriage to Wei and her lingering feelings for his brother, Qiang. Sunny, the family's housekeeper, is a keen but silent observer of these tensions. An unmarried woman trying to carve a place for herself in society, she understands the power of well-kept secrets. When Qiang reappears in Shanghai after decades on the run with a local gang, the family must finally come to terms with the past and its indelible mark on their futures.

From a silk-producing village in rural China, up the corporate ladder in suburban America, and back again to the post-Maoist nouveaux riches of modern Shanghai, What We Were Promised explores the question of what we owe to our country, our families, and ourselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316437196
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 08/06/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 196,601
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lucy Tan grew up in New Jersey and has spent much of her adult life in New York and Shanghai. She received her B.A. from New York University and her M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was awarded the 2016 August Derleth Prize. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Asia Literary Review and Ploughshares, where she was winner of the 2015 Emerging Writer's Contest. This is her first novel.

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What We Were Promised 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
ElizMcGinnis More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most thoughtful books I've ever read. It's not a fast-paced book that you'll fly through in a couple days. It's about life and the decisions and judgments people make throughout their lives. As you read about the two families involved in this tale, you might easily find yourself considering what you would have done in their place. This book will easily make the reader think about their own life and the decisions they've made. Fascinating.
BarryTheNoble More than 1 year ago
What We Were Promised is a fantastic and fresh debut novel that you should definitely read. Through beautifully crafted sentences Tan brings her characters to life, each with a distinct and complete perspective in the world. With the mysterious disappearance of a bracelet and the reappearance of a brother once thought dead, the plot pulls you in and reveals depth to the characters without ever feeling forced. Tan expertly blends together themes of love's different forms, of where home is in our increasingly global society, and of course of promises made to others and to ourselves. Readers may be familiar with "upstairs-downstairs" stories and immigrant stories, but I believe the perspective of a family that leaves their country for America only to return in a new class of a new society will provide an interesting and insightful journey for any reader.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What We Were Promised is a family saga, of sorts, and chock-full of d-r-a-m-a. Tan crafts a story around the Zhen family: Wei and Lina grew up in China before moving to America to pursue lofty dreams of higher education and corporate success. After twenty-some years, the couple has returned to their motherland, a couple decades older and joined this time by their teenage daughter, Karen. During their years abroad, they accrued wealth and success, and Wei was offered the opportunity to oversee his budding company's newly-opened Shanghai-branch. They move into an elite hotel community at Lanson Suites, where their laundry, cooking, and cleaning are all accomplished by staff members and Lina doesn't have to lift a finger to do more than shop for extravagant clothes and accessories. Karen spends most of the year in America at an elite boarding school, but summers with her parents in a land that is completely foreign to her. The family lives together, but each person seems to occupy a separate sphere of existence, interacting superficially at mealtimes (when Wei makes it home in time) and during rare moments of collective free time. At first glance, I chalked the characters up as superficial; but after deeper reflections on Wei and Lina's complicated early relationship, I began to see the characters as complex -- albeit often shallow -- and savored the unwinding of their histories and present lives. Woven into the narrative of the Zhen family's daily life, in poignant juxtaposition, is the telling of Sunny's experiences as first the family's maid, and later, their ayi (nanny). Sunny is an anomaly: she's in her late twenties/early thirties (her age is a bit ambiguous) and although she was married once before, she lives a simple, work-driven life as a single woman -- childless, no less -- in a society that seems to value women more when they are homemakers and wives and mothers. Sunny's observations bring another dimension to What We Were Promised, offering readers a juicy (and often, maddening) outsider evaluation of the Zhen household. While this book didn't quite shake me as much as I expected it to, I did find a great deal to appreciate in Tan's work. Her themes of cultural displacement + collective identity gave WWWP a dimension I didn't think I'd find at the onset of the novel. The family dynamic (or quiet dysfunction, if you will), combined with the bitter taste of rotting dreams, created an atmosphere of regret and desire that made this book a compelling read. Overall: 4 stars. Read this one if you're a fan of family dramas and stories that span cultures. What We Were Promised is in the vein of The Leavers (think the desire to belong coupled with unfulfilling life choices) and Winter Garden (think tension, unresolved pasts, and sibling rivalry/competition/contempt).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Managed to avoid over-sweet withiut resorting to gratuitous nihilism. Good story with redemption.