Weike Wang writes characters with some of the most distinctive voices I’ve ever read; her previous novel Chemistry had a similar straightforward sparseness that felt both orderly and soothing. Joan is also a scientist, an attending physician at a Manhattan hospital. She relishes her job, her usefulness, and as such, the feeling of being a cog in the wheel. When her father dies, she takes only a weekend to fly to China for the funeral, though his loss permeates her life in the months that follow.
She is an enigma to her family, coworkers, and neighbors, all of whom try in different ways to forge connections and draw her from her work-focused ways. When the hospital makes her take off for bereavement, the newfound time forces her to examine her identity more closely than she has in ages–and it’s drawn into sharper focus when COVID hits and Asians become targets.
I loved being in Joan’s very literal head and her full acceptance of herself and her own life path.
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Joan is a thirtysomething ICU doctor at a busy New York City hospital. The daughter of Chinese parents who came to the United States to secure the American dream for their children, Joan is intensely devoted to her work, happily solitary, successful. She does look up sometimes and wonder where her true roots lie: at the hospital, where her white coat makes her feel needed, or with her family, who try to shape her life by their own cultural and social expectations.
Once Joan and her brother, Fang, were established in their careers, her parents moved back to China, hoping to spend the rest of their lives in their homeland. But when Joan’s father suddenly dies and her mother returns to America to reconnect with her children, a series of events sends Joan spiraling out of her comfort zone just as her hospital, her city, and the world are forced to reckon with a health crisis more devastating than anyone could have imagined.
Deceptively spare yet quietly powerful, laced with sharp humor, Joan Is Okay touches on matters that feel deeply resonant: being Chinese-American right now; working in medicine at a high-stakes time; finding one’s voice within a dominant culture; being a woman in a male-dominated workplace; and staying independent within a tight-knit family. But above all, it’s a portrait of one remarkable woman so surprising that you can’t get her out of your head.