Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean KwokMambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok
Published by Riverhead on June 24, 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 384
Format: ARC
Source: Won
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From the bestselling author of Girl in Translation, a novel about a young woman torn between her family duties in Chinatown and her escape into the world of ballroom dancing.

Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.

But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

One of my special loves is dancing. It’s a love I got from my mother, just like Charlie did. Though, in the case of my family, it’s more about watching dancing than actually doing it, which I’m simply hopeless at. But, seriously, I don’t care how terrible a movie is: if it’s about dancing, I will watch it and probably like it a good deal more than I should. I hoped Mambo in Chinatown would be the book equivalent of movies like Strictly Ballroom and Shall We Dance?, and oh how right I was. Mambo in Chinatown is an adorable dancing movie about going for your dreams, as well as a touching story of family and culture.

The novel’s heroine Charlie (yes, she’s a girl and, no, it’s not short for anything) works as a dishwasher. She’d like to do something better, but doesn’t really aspire because she doesn’t think she’s good enough. Charlie’s never excelled at anything. Instead, she funnels her dreams into her gifted younger sister, Lisa, and works hard to earn money to help out her Pa. Family is very important in Chinese culture, but for Charlie it’s clearly more than duty that keeps her at home at age 22. She loves her family, even when they frustrate her, which they often do.

At someone’s suggestion, Charlie goes to interview for a receptionist job at a dance studio. Her mother was a renowned ballerina and Charlie hopes this will help her feel closer to her mother. They take a chance on Charlie, in her outsize matron’s clothing and with her lack of skills. She turns out to be a terrible receptionist, but they end up seeing promise in her as a dancer. Charlie really takes to dancing, due to innate talent. This might seem like a chosen one sort of thing, but she was already highly skilled at tai chi with some natural sports ability and strength from dishwashing. She works intensely for months and doesn’t become magically amazing overnight. Kwok shows how much effort she puts in to get good at dancing so quickly and makes the whole thing very believable.

Watching Charlie discover who she is free from the constraints of her family is wonderful. Much as she loves them and they her, her family doesn’t always have the best ideas for her. They try to force romance on her with specifically chosen men and shame her if she wears even slightly revealing clothing. Though the goal is protection, the end result is squelching her personality and creativity. The story is all about finding the balance between her dreams and her family’s hopes for her.

There’s a plot surrounding Charlie’s little sister, which makes the book really dark at times. Overall, it’s a really adorable sweet romance. I won’t get into details here, but Lisa has some serious problems that have to be resolved. I saw the ending coming, but I think it resolved well enough. The relationships between Charlie, Pa, and Lisa are so sweet. They all care for one another, but they’re all so bad at showing that or really knowing how to help.

Actually, the one aspect I’m not really into is the romance. Charlie deserves some romance for sure, and I don’t hate the guy, but the timing of everything really bothered me. It’s borderline not shippable for me, personally. Kwok did a good job setting everything up, but I didn’t like the way things actually happened. Also, the really annoying thing is that the book ends before the reader finds out if View Spoiler ». I’m assuming not, but I’d really like to know that sort of thing for sure.

Despite the lack of SHIP, I wholeheartedly recommend Mambo in Chinatown to all of my kindred spirits who cannot watch Strictly Ballroom enough times. Pretty sure you’ll all have as much fun as I did.

Favorite Quote:

“Every change has a hello and a goodbye in it, you know? You always have to leave in order to go on to something new.”

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

From this:
gif shall we dance
To this:
gif strictly ballroom

6 responses to “Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok”

  1. Steena says:

    This sounds wonderful! I immediately thought of Shall We Dance? and Strictly Ballroom after reading the description. This is moving up the reading ranks. And now I have to go watch Strictly Ballroom.

    • Christina Franke says:

      Yesssss. I forced my boyfriend to watch Strictly Ballroom, by which I mean he wanted to hang out and I insisted that I was watching SB no matter what. He was charmed in spite of himself. VICTORY.

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