3 stars. China Mountain Zhang was an impulse purchase for me at the used bookstore, based on strong blurbs and reviews. Maureen McHugh’s highly acclaimed novel turned out to be a mixed bag of strong writing and characterization held back by a rambling and largely pointless narrative that has no resolution whatsoever.
All this has the effect that I generally liked the characters, but felt absolutely no engagement with their struggles and successes. It’s a book about a realistic and compelling near future in which some interesting-sounding people who go to engineering school, raise goats, have plastic surgery, and go out on dates.
One very large problem that I had with China Mountain Zhang is that the characters are all shaped by events rather than having an effect on the world around them. The characters can all be termed marginal in one way or another–gay, not beautiful, wrong ethnic background, refugee. They adapt to society by suppressing or changing what they are, and I found that theme of conformance pretty damn depressing. They largely avoid conflict after conflict in aimless fashion as they check off what society expects from them. And then it just… ends.
I did admire McHugh’s writing a great deal; she is intellectual without being pretentious or tedious and her descriptions are evocative. Her world concept of China being the dominant force in the world is interesting, and her presentation of Chinese culture is well-done–I wish I had read this novel before I had travelled to China a few years ago, as it would have increased my appreciation of the trip.
Ultimately, McHugh seems to be an author more in love with words and ideas than stories. This would have been a much stronger novel had the narrative been more focused and the conflicts and themes more compelling. It’s not a book that I regret reading, but it’s not one that delivers much pleasure or satisfaction.