Mambo in Chinatown, by Jean Kwok, (Penguin), 384 pages
Jean Kwok’s Mambo in Chinatown is a fairytale of a book set in present-day New York and moving between a high-end ballroom dance studio and working class life in Chinatown. Charlie, the oldest of two daughters is our princess in disguise: hard working, lovingly dedicated to those around her, and consistently underestimated by almost everyone.
While the novel has its share of romance (in this world, a princess needs a prince), it’s Charlie who saves herself, not some heroic male sweeping in to rescue her. Tired of working as a dishwasher in the restaurant where her father makes noodles, Charlie takes a job as receptionist at the previously mentioned dance studio, Mildly dyslexic, she makes a mess of things, mixing up instructional schedules, garbling phone messages.
But just when Charlie’s about to lose her job for incompetence, someone notices how well she can point her toes and (forgive the change of analogy) our ugly duckling begins to transform into a swan—a swan with a previously unknown gift for teaching ballroom dance.
Parts of the story are predictable, but Charlie is such a likeable character that the reader forgives this; it’s fun to ride along on her journey. What’s best about this novel is the way it illuminates cultural conflicts within New York’s Chinese-American community. Western medicine is viewed skeptically, but Eastern medicine isn’t above suspicion. Fathers expect their daughters to be obedient, while these daughters are doing all they can to discover a world beyond that of their family.
You’ll figure out how this book will end well before you finish it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy reading it. Watching Charlie change her own world (and find her prince) is a genuine pleasure.