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What We Were Promised

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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 childhood keepsake, an ivory bracelet, has gone missing. The incident contributes to a wave of unease that has begun to settle 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 spends her days haunted by the circumstances surrounding her arranged marriage to Wei and her lingering feelings for his brother, Qiang. Lina and Wei take pains to hide their anxieties, but their housekeeper, Sunny, a hardworking girl with secrets of her own, bears witness to their struggles. When Qiang reappears in Shanghai after decades on the run with a local gang, the family must finally come to terms with the past.

From a silk-producing village in rural China, up the corporate ladder in suburban America, and back again to the post-Maoist nouveau riche of modern Shanghai, WHAT WE WERE PROMSED explores the question of what we owe to our country, our families, and ourselves.

328 pages, Hardcover

First published July 10, 2018

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About the author

Lucy Tan

2 books211 followers
Lucy Tan is the author of What We Were Promised, which was long listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a Best Book of 2018 by The Washington Post, Refinery 29, and Amazon. Lucy received her M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was awarded the 2016 August Derleth Prize and currently serves as the James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow. Her work is published or forthcoming in journals such as McSweeney’s, Asia Literary Review and Ploughshares.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 608 reviews
Profile Image for Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader.
2,052 reviews30k followers
August 10, 2018
4 stars to What We Were Promised! ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

In What We Were Promised, the opening prologue includes the Zhen family leaving China to move to the United States. When life does not turn out the way they had expected financially, they return to Shanghai several years later.

Next, we meet Sunny, a housekeeper working in a lavish high rise apartment in Shanghai. Immediately apparent are the class differences as a result of her occupation, as well as her home background.

Years later, the Zhen family moves back to China, where their money goes further, and Lina, the wife, no longer has to work. They make their home in the fancy Lanson Suites in Shanghai where they hire a housekeeper and nanny companion for their teen daughter. The nanny they hire is Sunny.

Wei, the husband and father, begins to doubt his status as a marketing strategist and wishes he had chosen something more prestigious. At the same time, Lina is now lonely and bored without a job to keep her busy. Qiang, Wei’s brother, mysteriously comes to visit, and there is an uncomfortable feeling both from Wei and Lina, with Sunny observing it all. Qiang has been on the lam for years and is associated with some dark activity, which forces Wei and Lina to confront the past, as much as they have tried to bury it. This is a novel of family and explores topics such as the appropriateness of arranged marriage, the necessity of love in marriage, and money and its role in happiness.

Overall, I found What We Were Promised to be a thought-provoking and beautifully written novel about cultural and familial expectations, and how those same expectations can unknowingly shape our lives. It is also a parable on those who have it all versus those who must work hard in order to have, and of course the lesson of just who is happier.

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for the ARC. All opinions are my own.

My reviews can also be found on my blog: www.jennifertarheelreader.com
Profile Image for Susanne.
1,153 reviews36.2k followers
July 23, 2018
4.25 Stars* (rounded down)

Culture, Tradition and Family Ties. That is the story of “What We Were Promised.”

The transition of moving from the United States to Shanghai is a difficult one for the Zhen family. Lina was a School Teacher and is now a “Tai Tai,” a wealthy housewife, who need not work. Her husband Wei, is a successful Marketing Strategist. They live in Lanson Suites and have a Housekeeper and an AYI (a nanny/companion), named Sunny, - for their pre-teen daughter. Life is good. Then their quiet existence is disrupted when Wei’s brother, Qiang, who no one has seen or heard from in over 20 years calls to say that he is planning to come visit. Both Lina and Wei have deep feelings about Qiang’s visit, though neither have shared theirs with the other. Sunny, their AYI, however sees all.

Why is Qiang visiting after all of this time? How will it impact the Zhen’s? Will it tear them apart or bring them closer together?

The ties that bind are oh so complicated, especially when different cultures and traditions are involved. Told in two different timelines with multiple narrators, “What We Were Promised” is a story about culture and circumstance and its impact on a family who shows their love for each other in different ways. Lucy Tan, expertly evokes the emotions of the characters and delves into the past of each individual quite well. When Lina, Qiang, Wei and Sunny ached, so did I.

“What We Were Promised” is a beautifully written novel which touched me in ways I can’t explain. Though I wished for a different ending, I was impressed with the way the author brought the storyline together.

Thank you to NetGalley, Little Brown and Company and Lucy Tan for a complimentary copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Published on NetGalley, Goodreads, Amazon and Twitter on 7.23.18.
Profile Image for Meredith B.  (readingwithmere).
231 reviews158 followers
July 26, 2018
3.75 stars rounded up!

The Truth was more complicated than that. These objects of luxury they handled - how easy it was to fill them with meaning, to let them represent what you did or didn't have. How difficult, in fact, to know what you wanted in the first place.

This is the author's debut novel and it was beautifully written. This book dives into some deep rooted family issues that some cultures don't like to talk about.

As Children, Wei and Lina Zhen grew up in traditional Chinese-American homes. Their families were friends and when they were teenagers the families told them that one day, after college, that the two would marry. As custom goes, the two didn't interact very much up until that point. Instead Lina grew close to Wei's brother Qiang. They developed a very special bond which eventually turned into falling in love with each other. However, one day Qiang disappears, Wei gets an offer to go to America and due to the families agreements, Lina must go with him.

The Zhen's live in a luxury apartment complex in Shanghai. With this comes housekeeping as well as their ability to hire a nanny (ayi) to take care of their daughter and the family as a whole. One day, a bracelet was stolen from Lina and Sunny's friend Rose has been accused. There's a lot that comes from this bracelet being stolen. It brings up marriage issues between Wei and Lina and the ultimate reason it's devastating is because the bracelet was given to Lina from Qiang, her true love. Qiang shows up one day and secrets start to be revealed. You'll have to read to find out what they are!

This book is by no means a fast paced novel, however, it does explore a lot of family issues in the Chinese culture. It brings up the questions of, is arranged marriage still OK? Is it OK to use your children to pay off debts? What if the person you are married to isn't the person that you have truly always loved? Does your family get to dictate that? Does being rich make you happy if you aren't with the person you fell in love with?

At times this book was slow for me which is why it took me so long to finish it. I would pick it up and read it a little bit at a time. I think I was maybe looking for there to be some sort of twist which at the end there is a little one. I would recommend going into this book knowing it's not going to be a super light read and it's going to make you think. I had to reread parts of the book at time to make sure I understood what was happening.

Overall I think this debut was pretty good. I am interested to see what Lucy tan has coming up next.

Thank you to Little Brown and Company for my Advanced Review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
Profile Image for Brandice.
798 reviews
December 22, 2018
What We Were Promised is a story of the Zhen family who lives in Shanghai, but used to live in Pennsylvania. Wei is a successful marketing executive and his wife, Lina, is a “tai tai” - A wealthy housewife who does not need to work, though she was formerly a teacher. She meets the other tai tais for meals regularly at the luxury complex where they live. Wei and Lina also have a daughter, Karen, who is home for the summer but goes to school in the U.S. Sunny, one of the housekeepers at the complex agrees to become the family’s “ayi” for the summer, keeping an eye on Karen and assisting with cooking and other household tasks.

Wei’s estranged brother, Qiang, arrives to visit after not having seen his brother or sister-in-law in two decades. As the story progresses, flashbacks to the trio’s young adult years are interspersed with the current timeline, revealing more depth about each of the characters. There are also chapters of Sunny’s POV, including her observations of the Zhen family as she begins to spend more time with them.

I liked the story - There were some parts where I was really into it and others where I continued to read but it became a little duller, to me anyway. The story built to a turning point and the reveal was different than what I had predicted, which was a welcome surprise. I did feel like after the reveal, the story fell flat. Kind of an “It is what it is” vibe, though for the most part, I enjoyed the book.

What We Were Promised is a story about family, culture, and happiness. When do we feel obligated to trade off and prioritize one of these for another? And should we? Interesting thoughts to consider - 3.5 stars (rounded up).
Profile Image for Susie.
1 review8 followers
March 22, 2018
As a second generation Asian-American, so much of this novel resonated with me. I've already read it cover-to-cover twice now, and will come back to it again when I'm in the mood for some seriously good writing and story, probably accompanied by a glass of wine and dark chocolate.

This book tells the story of a family—Lina, Wei, their adolescent daughter, Karen—moving back to Shanghai for Wei’s marketing career after two decades of living in the U.S. One summer, Wei’s brother comes to visit and Lina hires a housekeeper/babysitter named Sunny to free up her time to act as hostess. This premise sets up a book that’s essentially character studies of people from different economic classes forced to live and interact within the confines of a single, well-staffed apartment building (Lanson Suites), all the while lying, hiding, evading, pining, and confronting one another with the deftness of any Edith Wharton character.

The three narrators—Lina, Wei, Sunny—represent the spectrum of complicated feeling I also have for modern day China and my place in it. There’s the nostalgia for the homeland of my parents and grandparents (where I’ve also spent many summers and college vacations), the flattery of being considered “upper class” simply by having lived in the U.S., the disgust for the myriad of pretensions of the rich, and above all—the search for a life with meaning when you feel displaced by both home and culture.

My favorite character in the book was Lina; without giving away spoilers, I loved her flawed personality, her private reflections, even her outward chilliness towards her husband and so-called friends in her “breakfast club”. She’s proud and guarded, a snob of the nouveau riche variety, but money isn’t the thing she seeks—it’s love, that elusive thing so hard to come by regardless of social class. So much of this novel explores what our cultural definition of love is (lust? trust? companionship?) through Lena’s regrets for her past choices, but also, in a fascinating character arc, through the housekeeper, Sunny’s, journey to decide if she wants to throw her lot in with a “good-enough” man, or try to make it on her own. It’s seeing these characters evolve and change through their small, everyday decisions (that bear such lasting consequences!) that provides the greatest pleasures of this novel.

Tan’s writing is so wonderfully understated and clean. There isn’t a whiff of the pretensions found in other debut authors. She writes with absolute control and precision. If you pick out any one sentence from the novel, it almost reads Heminway-esque in its plainness, and yet together, there’s a such a beauty to its spareness that I can only imagine the work that must of gone into achieving such restraint. It's the kind of book where I can flip to any page and immediately be absorbed within a matter of seconds. Do yourself a favor and spend a weekend with this, if only for the wonder of reading that incredible last sentence!

Profile Image for Lisa.
1,378 reviews517 followers
December 11, 2019
This is a subtle, character driven novel about a family grappling with change after moving back to China from the US. It offers a glimpse of life in modern Shanghai of both the haves and have-nots. I like the way Tan reveals the many dimensions of her characters, including their flaws, and felt invested in Lina and her family.
Profile Image for da AL.
360 reviews359 followers
December 23, 2018
Intelligent, nuanced, and beautifully written story. How love, how perspective, how our experience changes everything. Audiobook performer Jennifer Lim does an outstanding job.
Profile Image for ❄️BooksofRadiance❄️.
600 reviews710 followers
November 12, 2018
I’m still reeling from the crushing disappointment that is this book.

This’s set in Shanghai so it’s only natural that it be on my radar since before it was even released and to say my expectations were sky high would be an understatement.
The incredibly generous two stars is for the China setting.

I’ll say it again, what a crushing disappointment.
For starters, IT WAS BORING. And I mean so utterly boring that I came close to DNFing it so many times. The author spends 4 to 5 pages describing things that are of no importance to the narrative whatsoever, like the most mundane things that the characters were doing or talking about which brought nothing to the story.
There’s an attempt to create “tension” and unease so as to make the story more sentimental that ended up really not working at all ‘cause the tension felt so forced and even aggravating because the characters were just a bunch of ignorant, self-serving and pretentious idiots in addition to also being dull. So so so so dull.

The flashbacks were what made me almost call it quits altogether because oh my goodness NOTHING WAS HAPPENING! It was mumblingly uninteresting. Let’s just leave it at that.

And that sentence: ’She let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.’🤦‍♀️🤦‍♀️🤦‍♀️
Are you kidding me!? Didn’t YA authors trademark this cheesefest of a line for themselves?? WHY. Just... why?

The characters, right.
The father, Wei - so painfully out of touch with reality. Oblivious to his surroundings. Dull as a wall. Doesn’t know which way’s up or down, not to mention, cowardly.
The mother, Lina - a pompous, artificial, self-important Idiot who suffers from an inflated self-worth. Oh, how I hated her.
Karen, the 12-year-old daughter going on 50 - a know-it-all spoiled brat and so so so unbelievably irritating and arrogant. Wow.

The only three characters who had slightly redeeming qualities were:
Sunny, the house keeper/ and a sort of nanny-like companion to Karen.
Qiang, the returning brother.
And Cao, the driver.
Profile Image for Yun.
505 reviews18k followers
February 16, 2019
In What We Were Promised, a Chinese family has returned to China after living many years in America chasing the American dream. The husband Wei works long hours to give his family their newfound wealth and privilege, while the wife Lina lives a life of leisure and their daughter is sent off to school in America. When Wei's brother Qiang makes contact for the first time in 20 years, the hidden tensions and desires of the family members start to surface.

This book is lovely in so many ways that it's a little hard to put it all in words. Its quiet and insightful study of the different characters in this book are a real highlight. Each character has a unique perspective and is fueled by their own yearnings, and the author is able to sketch each of them into multi-faceted beings. The book also addresses the hidden tensions in a marriage, with all that shared history and unmet expectations between the two participants. It asks the question of what happiness is. And it explores what makes a place a home, and the desire in all of us to find meaning and fulfillment.

There are little bits of Chinese sprinkled throughout the book, and while the author makes clear their meaning, I found that knowing the language myself adds an additional layer of context to the dialogues. I also appreciated the references to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which help to augment my limited understanding of that period in Chinese history, and its lasting impact to people of my parents' generation.

While this book isn't action or plot driven, I still found it riveting. Lucy Tan's beautiful and reflective writing really brings this quiet character-study alive with meaning and emotions. This is Lucy Tan's debut novel, and I can't wait to read more from her.
Profile Image for Lolly K Dandeneau.
1,825 reviews231 followers
March 5, 2018
via my blog: https://bookstalkerblog.wordpress.com/
'Fang Lijian’s perspective on love was different from any she’d heard before. Lina’s friends had watched too many American movies and to them, love was a classic car that would come roaring in from nowhere when the time was right, pick you up, and peel away. For all their warnings to her about relinquishing control marrying a man she didn’t know, they seemed to crave the kind of love that made you lose control.'

The Zhen family returns to China after chasing the “American Dream’, which didn’t quite pan out the way they, and their elders, had expected. Wei didn’t rocket to the success he and his father imagine, bringing greatness to his Chinese roots. His wife Lina isn’t proud of her days spent as a taitai, a housewife who doesn’t have anything to occupy herself with. When Lina’s tanzanite bracelet from Africa (the only remaining keepsake of her early love) disappears, Lina isn’t sure if the old maid stole it or not. Sunny is surprised when the Zhen family asks her to work for them as an ayi, to help with shopping, cooking and to Lina’s mind to have someone to distract their daughter when Wei’s brother Qiang visits.

Lina feels a restlessness in her heart, a longing for a past that’s long dead and the life she had imagined, that never breathed life. There was a time when she readied herself to be a dutiful daughter and wife, have many children and live with her in-laws in the village. All of that was obliterated with the reality of moving the America. Qiang and Lian had a moment, though he was the ‘bad’ son. Where Wei was a son to make any Chinese parent proud, Qiang was always in trouble, living in his honorable brother’s shadow. Lina was groomed for marriage to Wei, who would surely make her life one of security, comfort. In her mind she would live out her life in the village, a dutiful wife and daughter-in-law, and never imagined she would one day be teaching Chinese to American children in the United States of America, only to return with nothing to do living in a tower. Why is she now, after so many years, mooning over the past knowing that her feelings for Qiang belong to a different time, a different Lina. Is it boredom, is it Qiang’s plan to visit?

Wei isn’t sure how to feel about seeing his brother again, who disappeared without a word, breaking their parents hearts. Shocked to learn that he is even still alive, and angered that he chose not to see their parents sets off a riot of conflicting emotions. It is with suspicion he opens his home to the bad seed. Surely, he must still be running around with criminals, gangsters? Just why does Qiang want to be a part of his family again? Where has he been all these years? Upon his arrival, Qiang seems filled with resentment towards his brother, and in Wei’s mind, comes off as wanting to shame him for not reaching the greatness their father was adamant be his. Who knows better than Qiang what golden future was set for his brother Wei? Lina longs for her moment to find why he chose to abandon them all, especially her. Sunny is witness to everything that happens within’ the Zhen household. She has gone from being ‘under the suspicion of theft’ to working as an ayi. She has her own story to tell, of her marriage and it’s demise, of the money she earns with her hard work and sends home to her family. Sunny has her own family shaming to tolerate, as a daughter is meant to carry on the line, have children, not earn money like some man. Yet, it feels good to earn money, to sustain oneself without a husband to have dodged the life she knew in her bones wasn’t meant for her.

This is a novel about cultural and family expectations, it is also how our lives take shape based on unexpected choices others make for us. It is finally getting the whole story, and feeling foolish for the time wasted wondering why. Too, it is about those who have everything, and those who work for them.

Publication Date: July 10, 2018

Little, Brown and Company
Profile Image for Stephanie Anze.
657 reviews110 followers
October 22, 2018
3.5 stars rounded up.

After twenty years of living in America, the Zhen family move back to China (where they are originally from). Settling in the luxurious Lanson Suites in Shanghai, Wei, Lina and their teenage daughter Karen lead a very comfortable life. But no amount of expensive and fine amenities can make up for their uneasiness around each other, a fact that does not go unnoticed by Sunny (their ayi, private nanny) and that further exacerbates with the arrival of Qiang (Wei's brother). The dissaperance of one of Lina's bracelets sets into motion a series of events that further complicate the lives of this family, forcing everyone to re-examine their relationships.

I came upon this book by chance and finding the concept to my liking, decided to give it a go. The Zhen family lived in America for about twenty years until Wei, a marketing strategist, was transfered by his company to Shanghai. With that came a much better salary and his wife, Lina, no longer needed to work. A school teacher, Lina is now a Tai-tai (a housewife that does little to no work at all and enjoys a life of leisure). While Wei and Lina grew up in China, they received their education in America, their daughter was born in America. As ex-pats, they don't quite know their place. When Qiang calls after mysteriously dissapering for twenty years, saying he is coming to visit them, it causes tension on the family. Enter Sunny, their housekeeper-turned-ayi. Sunny, herself, has a hard time finding her place after becoming a widow and moving to Shanghai. As these five individuals interact, their fates change.

I like the sentiment behind this narrative. The prose is well written. Dealing with obligations, responsabilities and duties to family and self, these two were often at odds. The title aludes to promises made and their respective outcomes. Outwardly, the Zhens seem like a fine family but each member (including Qiang and also Sunny) is hiding something and no one knows truly how anyone really is faring. Culture and tradition play a strong role as they either impede or ease personal development and growth. There are plenty of keen observations throughout the book. Where I struggled was with the pace. It was a bit too slow at times and it was not til I was over halfway through that I became truly invested. I can see the author's effort and do think this is a book that is thought-provocking. I am glad I came across this book and overall, found it, thoughtful.
Profile Image for Tuti.
449 reviews47 followers
November 20, 2018
i liked it. interesting story on different levels - a western-educated chinese family going back to shanghai because the husband, wei, got a good job there (for an american company). the wife, lina, is at home in a luxurious residence with pool and maids, with nothing to do. the daughter, karen, us-born, is on vacation with her parents, so far going to school in the us, which she calles « home ».
the story starts with the announcement that wei‘s lost brother, whom they haven‘t seen for twenty years, is coming to visit them. a parallel story is told from the perspective of the maid, sunny, who observes the life and relationships of this family, while trying to find a place for herself in the big city. told from a western perspective but with a lot of knowledge of life in modern china by a chinese-american author, it opens a perspective into a new type of life-style of a western-educated well-off chinese class, returning to china and trying to find their place there. also, the family story, between tradition and modernity, and the love stories of a woman caught between two very different men are worth reading. recommended.
Profile Image for Lillian Li.
Author 5 books164 followers
April 5, 2018
I loved Lucy Tan’s What We Were Promised. A true talent, debut author Tan writes prose that is compelling, evocative, funny, and at the same time manages to cut straight to the core of things. Most impressive of all is the authority and care with which Tan builds her world of nouveau-riche Shanghai, not only situating the complex, cosmopolitan city in the equally complex history of China and the Cultural Revolution, but allowing this same history to shape and haunt her novel (as fully and inevitably as it does in reality). Don’t even get me started on her characters. I cried just about anytime Zhen Hong came on the page. I loved Sunny, Rose, Karen, Little Cao, and my heart ached deeply for all the rest.
Profile Image for Jessica.
2,172 reviews3 followers
July 31, 2018
I can't tell whether I thought this was unremarkable and rather boring just because I've already read 16* books like it this year or if it really wouldn't stand out regardless. Normally I'd dismiss it as a so-so book: well-enough written and plotted to be worth reading if it sounds like your thing, definitely not a can't-miss. Anne Bogel put it on her minimalist summer reading guide, though! I'd love to know why. Our reading tastes aren't perfectly matched, so her favorite books won't necessarily be mine, but I was still really underwhelmed.

*made up number
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
256 reviews283 followers
October 3, 2018
Tl;dr: An unflinching, gorgeously writtenlook at expat life through the view of a Chinese couple returning to China and the woman they hire to watch their daughter. You can be at home and yet never be there like you want to be.

What We Were Promised is exquisitely written and traces the consequences of leaving home, and how whether it's for another country or simply another place means that the gulf between what you knew and who you've become can make you a stranger to what you thought you'd always know, be it your future, your family, or even your own heart.

Through Lina, Sunny, Wei, and Quiang, Ms. Tan weaves a story that begins in the late 1980s and spans to the present, tracing how Lina and Wei left China for America, their return to Shanghai, and how the reunion with Wei's younger brother, Quiang, unfolds over the span of about a week. In that time, Sunny, who is a maid in the building where Lina and Wei live, is hired by Lina to be an Ayi, a sort of companion/nanny to their daughter, Karen.

China's culture was indelibly marked by Mao's Great Leap Forward, and the ripples of that are in What We Were Promised as well.

I think some readers may find it difficult to relate to Lina, but I loved her. She's a woman who is now a product of two cultures, but yearns for what she's lost--or rather, what she thinks she has.

Sunny was fascinating--a woman who yearns for more, even as she's unsure not if she can have it, but if she should, and if so, should she try? The last scene with her broke me more than a little.

Thought provoking and nuanced, this is the kind of novel that stays with you. Most definitely for fans of Ha Jin (especially his novel Waiting) and, I think for anyone who has ever yearned to return to somewhere or someone only to learn that nothing and no one is ever constant.

I did receive an ARC, but also own the book, and eagerly look forward to Ms. Tan's next work.
Profile Image for Carol (Reading Ladies).
620 reviews141 followers
August 11, 2018
2.5 stars. I’m underwhelmed. The first 90% of the story is build up and in the last 10% some important themes are introduced and the story ends. I thought what was brought up at the end was life changing, interesting, and important (avoiding spoilers here) and the story needed more time to explore the implications and how the disclosure will change their lives. As plot twists go, I thought it was fascinating and intriguing. The characters are not that likable but we do get a great look at Chinese home, family, and Shanghai culture. I enjoyed the themes of rich/poor, arranged marriage, the new rich, western/Chinese culture, family loyalty, the elite vs the help, traditional roles, etc. One small disappointment was with the Sunny/bracelet storyline resolution. Her choice at the end represented her resignation and a philosophy that is discouraging to me. I wanted more for her. In other circumstances I might have DNF’d this book, but I was committed to giving this Modern Mrs Darcey top pick a fair chance. Others have loved it....give it a try!

For more reviews visit my blog: readingladies.com
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,161 reviews35 followers
December 15, 2018
2.5 rounded down

Shanghai, 2010. China is preparing for the Shanghai Expo, and the city is the setting for Lucy Tan's debut novel.

We follow the Zhen family - Wei, Lina and their daughter Karen. The couple are originally from Suzhou (a city on the Grand Canal, an hour away from Shanghai), and have recently moved back to China after living in America for a number of years. Wei's high-powered job has brought them to Shanghai and they take residence in some fancy catered apartments in the "new" area of Shanghai, Pudong, living in a tower block amongst other wealthy expats. Wei's brother, Qiang, announces he is paying a visit - ostensibly to go to the Expo - and this stirs up emotions between Wei and Lina as memories of the past come back to haunt them.

The other narrative follows Sunny, a woman in her mid 30s who works as a cleaner at the suites where the Zhen family live. Sunny goes on to be employed as an ayi (阿姨 - translates to something like an au pair who cleans, cooks, and looks after the kids) by the Zhen family for the summer, hoping to fulfil her dream of going to the Expo. Sunny has a sad past, and has pressure from her parents to have a "normal" life (i.e. get married and have kids). She lives in grotty accommodation and experiences the other side of Shanghai, worlds away from the lives of the Zhen family.

With all this set up I had pretty high hopes - Shanghai is one of my favourite cities (I visited the Expo which features quite a bit in the later parts of the story), and I was excited to see how Sunny's story in particular panned out. I'm sad to report it didn't really come together. Too much time was devoted to descriptive back story and I felt like things were resolved a little clumsily.

I wouldn't rule out reading Lucy Tan's future novels, but maybe my hopes were too high going into this.
Profile Image for Afoma (Reading Middle Grade).
509 reviews264 followers
December 27, 2018
Thanks to Little Brown for a free ARC of this book!

WHAT WE WERE PROMISED is the enthralling story of Chinese family forced, by the return of a prodigal son, to address familial issues and unfulfilled promises.

I was struck by the poignancy of her deceptively simple style, barely ten pages in! This book is full of astute observations about life, love, and the choices we make for the people we love. Combined with compelling characters, the mystery of Qiang’s return and what it will mean for the Zhens, this book is hard to put down. Also, the shimmering backdrop of Shanghai — the food, the architecture, and yes, the smog, make Tan’s novel feel like a complete visit to China.

This is sure to be on my list of favorite books from this year. I’ve already recommended it enough times to lose count. If you like books with simple language, insightful commentary about life and complex characters, read WHAT WE WERE PROMISED. A compelling, sensitive and thoughtful debut that is sure to move you, I highly recommend this novel!

Full review at https://afomaumesi.com/what-we-were-p...
Profile Image for Charlotte.
341 reviews100 followers
September 11, 2018
What We Were Promised was not what I expected and I completely loved it!

This book blends together the stories of an expat family (wife Lina, husband Wei, daughter Karen) recently returned to Shanghai, their rural-born housekeeper Sunny finding her footing in the modern city, and a long-lost and thought-to-be-dead brother Qiang. I was enthralled by the observations of unrequited love, struggling with your identiy, and feeling out of place in both another country and your own upon your return. Tan is able to cover all of these topics by describing five people and letting the family drama unravel slowly. Books from different perspectives can sometimes interrupt the flow of the narrative but the author herself said she “wrote this novel from multiple perspectives because [she] wanted to highlight how much [her] characters misunderstood about one another”. I think this worked really well here and made me connect with and root for all the characters.

I’m really impressed with many debut novels this year and What We Were Promised is definitely one of the top books in that category. Read this if you enjoy intimate but simple prose and family stories spanning across time and space, making sense of heavier topics. 5/5 stars.

Profile Image for Charlsa.
529 reviews21 followers
August 5, 2018
There has been so much hype about this up and coming author. I was disappointed. The story plodded along. None of the characters were particularly likeable. The author took too long to develop the characters but little time on telling the story and bringing it to a conclusion. Just when she finally started telling the story, the book ended. This didn’t read like book one of a series, but if it turns out that is the case, I won’t bother with book two.
Profile Image for Olga.
519 reviews55 followers
July 21, 2018
I very much enjoyed Lucy Tan's debut fiction novel, "What We Were Promised." The book focuses on one family and two people floating in their orbit. The Zhen family is comprised of Lina, Wei, and their daughter Karen, none of whom are close to each other, much less have active conversations. While Qiang is Wei's brother, they haven't heard from him since their wedding day nearly 20 years ago. The second person in their orbit is Sunny. When first introduced in the novel, Sunny was the housekeeper assigned to their residence. A few chapters in, however, she and Rose (another maid assigned to the apartment), were accused of stealing. Instead of getting fired, Sunny is offered a position as an ayi (a nanny) to Karen. At the same time, Qiang calls Wei out of the blue to announce that he will be in town for a week to visit the Chinese Expo and will be staying with the family.

The novel featured a strong supporting cast, a fair amount of detail without being an information dump, and beautiful writing. Each word is deliberate, as is the sparseness in some scenes. It was fraught with tension but it didn't feel forced or overwhelming. I found it an emotional read about family expectations and the choices we make, as well as those made for us. The book also seamlessly moves between the characters and the class differences.

Growing up, Lina envisioned a different life for herself rather than the one carved out for her by her parents. She'd dreamed of pursuing her own career path, perhaps marrying a different man than the one she'd been betrothed to since birth. Even when the young couple moved to America, Lina kept a form of independence. It wasn't until after they moved back to China that she lost her sense of drive and settled into the housewife lifestyle. This change in personality doesn't go unnoticed by Wei, her husband. He doesn't do anything about it, however, preferring to throw himself into his work. His schedule doesn't lessen when Qiang arrives in town either. Qiang's arrival will force the characters to think about themselves in ways they've long been avoiding, which made for an excellent, compelling read.
Profile Image for Trina .
174 reviews38 followers
February 11, 2020
What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan is a thoughtful, slowly paced, look at love, family and immigration. Well-written with great characterizations, all-in-all a great read.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher for my honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Synopsis from NetGalley/Publisher
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.
Profile Image for Linda Hutchinson.
1,232 reviews35 followers
August 4, 2018
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ If you read my reviews, you know that I like to keep them succinct. This is the first book in a long time that is hard to describe in a limited number of words. A character drive novel set in modern day Shanghai revolves around four people, Wei (the wealthy father and family provider), Lina (married to Wei and unfulfilled), Qiang (Wei’s bad boy brother), and Sunny (the maid turned nanny for the family). Post-revolutionary China is not the country that its revolutionary citizens expected. Socialism is a theory that never quite lives up to the country’s promises. In the end, you still have distinct class of individuals who are very wealthy, middle class, and as always, the working class. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Zhen family which has a maid seeking a better life, a ne’er-do-well brother who let his first love marry his brother, a husband who succeeds at everything except satisfying his wife, and a wife who pines for a more fulfilling life. The author writes about Lina, “She was existing simultaneously in the imaginary past and in the actual present, an effort so all-consuming that every other action seemed a chore.” I LOVED this book. It took me a while to read it because I had to savor every word and paragraph. Lucy Tan is a gifted writer with writing that requires close attention. Broken down, this novel is about love, family, duty, obligations, class, and a country trying to find its way in a new world order. Finely crafted and mesmerizing, I give it 5 stars even though I wish I could better describe the story. A top read for me this 2018. #love #family #life #newWorldOrder #expectations #book #boos #summerstooshort #familydynamics #mmdbookclub @annebogel #mmdsummerreadingguide2018 #whatWeWerePromised #LucyTan @lucyrtan @littlebrown

IG: @bookbimbo
Profile Image for Readingbringsjoy.
61 reviews179 followers
August 2, 2018
Thank you Littlebrown for the free review copy

What we were promised was a book that was on my radar because the description sounded exactly like my type of story. An interesting setting, a family recently coming into a lot of money, a long lost brother returning after years of being estranged, and lingering feelings left over after an arranged marriage. The lovely @annebogel helped put this book at the top of my list by adding it to her summer reading guide.

This book was such a fascinating look into the very wealthy upper-class families in Shanghai. I am talking wealthy with a capital "W." I love the contrasting storyline of the upscale Zhen family and their housekeeper Sunny who barely makes ends meet and lives in a group living situation. Sunny was a woman after my own heart. She watches others to find out their needs. Not every day needs you would think of, but rather the simple stuff you don't notice. For instance, if she saw a puddle of water near the tub she would place the towel closer to make it more efficient and comfortable for owners of the homes she cleaned. I love characters who appreciate the attention to detail like I do.

The story is slow and shifts from present-day Shangai to a rural village in China. As the story was wrapping up I thought I knew exactly the direction it would take and was definitely shocked to find out how things were going to actually end. I stayed up way too late to finish the book because I needed to know how it would end. This story won't leave me. I keep coming back to it and thinking through what the ending meant and about how the characters handled different situations.

Lucy Tan's debut novel is written with similar immersive writing as Maggie O'Farrell and Fatima Farheen Mirza
Profile Image for Sachi Argabright.
448 reviews200 followers
July 22, 2018
I absolutely LOVED this book! Definitely one of the best books I’ve read all year! The characters in this novel were so rich, and I grew to care about them deeply. While I could see Lina as an unlikeable character at times, I related to her early on in the story when she noted that being at ex-pat made her feel “in between.” Being half Asian and half white, I also struggle with feeling like I’m not “fully” white or “fully” Asian. I also loved the secrets and hidden motivations that are unraveled throughout the book, especially towards the end! Tan’s writing style is so unique and nuanced that I couldn’t get enough! Would highly, highly recommend!!
Profile Image for Maureen.
484 reviews4,218 followers
January 3, 2021
I think this book was not was I was expecting...but in a bad way. I really liked the concept and the blurb — it sounded so interesting, but it followed a different path than was really talked about in those. It wasn't bad, but it was just not what I was expected and the story I expected would've been much more interesting in my opinion.

Profile Image for Sharlene.
366 reviews111 followers
November 10, 2018
In the first chapter of this book, I learn a surprising fact about China – it has one standard time zone, despite it spanning five geographical time zones! How confusing is that?

Luckily this book, despite its interweaving stories of an expat family, a long-lost brother, and a housekeeping staff-turned-ayi, isn’t confusing at all.

Sunny is from rural China. She works as a maid cleaning rooms and serviced apartments at a hotel in Shanghai. Her name isn’t Sunny of course – it’s just a name tag she picked out of the bin, finding something that seemed right about the name, although she couldn’t even read it herself.

“Chinese names were too difficult for foreign residents to pronounce and carried too much meaning to be revealed to the Chinese speakers. When characters in a name were combined, they produced a complex of feelings and images. That was no good; the best thing for a housekeeper to be was forgettable. Better to take on the blankness of American names.”

One of the apartments that Sunny cleans belongs to the Zhen family, an expat family returned to China after a decade in the US. Lina and Wei have had a long history, having been betrothed since they were young. Wei works long hours at his advertising job, Lina is one of the many taitais in the hotel – “ladies of luxury who could not be called housewives because, aside from cooking the occasional meal, they did no housework at all”.

Wei’s long-lost brother Qiang, contacts them out of the blue after 22 years, and comes to visit. What exactly does he want? Why did he disappear all those years ago? And it turns out that Qiang and Lina have had a history of their own.

I’ve read quite a few books by Chinese authors but this one is written from a very different perspective of a returning Chinese family. Their move from China to the US and then back to China was such a contrast – from a young couple with no money to spare, entertaining themselves by wandering into drugstores and looking at all the goods on display and not being able to buy anything, to becoming a well-off expat family living in a fancy apartment, owning Rolex watches and expensive jewelry. It was a bit hard to like Lina though, although I felt like we had plenty in common in that I am an immigrant to the US myself and while Singapore isn’t such a huge contrast from the US with all its shopping malls and what not, there were all these very “American” things that fascinated (and sometimes frustrated) me. Like the way our first apartment had an open kitchen and this combination cooker hood/microwave over the stove – how was one to get rid of all the cooking smells if that was all?

“American kitchens weren’t designed for wok use, Lina complained. She had tried the American recipes and decided people here didn’t know what real cooking was. All that boiling and baking? Those were safe ways of preparing food. Oil was meant to be splattered on walls, the wok lid held in front of your body like a shield. Cooking, she said, was an act of love and creation. Danger should be somewhere in the mix or it didn’t count. You had to put yourself on the line; you had to sweat. Chinese cuisine required more energy and a higher flame.”

What We Were Promised is a story of contrasts. Sunny’s qunzu fang, a room she shares with five others and which reeks of boiled cabbage and urine vs the large and luxurious jasmine-scented Lanson Suites she cleans. The silk factory where Lina’s father worked vs the skyscraper in which Wei’s office is located. Rural vs city life, rich vs poor.

In case you can’t tell by now, I loved this book and I am just so excited to see what else Lucy Tan writes.
770 reviews122 followers
September 5, 2018
Wow. Quite a writing feat!

I enjoyed this book and appreciated the complexity of the story. This book has insightful and tender portrayals which made the characters and their stories compelling. I was concerned initially about reading about the super-rich; generally there seems to be very little that's redeeming in doing so. However, the characters here are well rounded and nuanced; the housecleaner/ayi and members of the rich family were depicted in such a way that one was not overshadowed or glorified more than the others. Their struggles and pains made them accessible to me as a reader.

As importantly, the story as well as the backstories propelled me through the book. And I have to say that I gained compassion for each of the characters...the range of them. And the prose is beautiful and confident.

And the climax, the reveal! oh my oh MY!

I look forward to Lucy Tan's future writing. I also very much appreciated her dedication to her parents and theirs (the names listed in Chinese).

Some quotes:

In every job, she had been trained by someone like Rose, a person too old to learn new skills and who craved recognition for the ones she already had. This kind of trainer expected Sunny to learn quickly and yet resented her for doing so.

The housekeeping staff at Lanson Suites always went by their English names, even though none of them spoke English. Chinese names were too difficult for foreigner residents to pronounce and carried too much meaning to be revealed to Chinese speakers. When characters in a name were combined, they produced a complex of feelings and images. That was no good; the best thing for a housekeeper to be was forgettable. Better to take on the blankness of American names. Choose well--a flower, a tree, a month--and its prettiness might make you also seem faultless. They liked to think that giving themselves the right names could prevent them from being accused of stealing, but they knew it wasn't true. Having an English name would not improve a person's language skills, and without the language, they would always seem like intruders.

But in the city, when a stranger's eye landed on her, she knew that to this person, she could be anyone--and the possibilities of it excited her. If she often felt lonely around strangers, she also sometimes thought that her "self"--that unformed possibility--might be the best company she'd ever had.

"But it isn't just the mystery of it," Qiang said. "There's a reason you're drawn to whatever it is, or whoever it is, you're falling for. They have something you're missing. So you're drawn not only to them but to the part of yourself that is incomplete. It's like...feeling more whole around them..."

"Why do we do that?" he asked, his voice climbing. "Why do our minds fixate on the kinds of love we're not getting instead of the kinds of love we are? We expect it to be the thing we want it to be. And we're blind to every other form of it."

You're almost unrecognizable, he'd said to her a few days ago at Yu Gardens as they waited in line for soup dumplings. When was the last time someone had looked at her as closely as he was looking then? That's funny, she'd thought. With you around, I recognize myself again. But he was only a reminder of her younger self, nothing more.
1,149 reviews17 followers
June 4, 2018
I've been fascinated with Chinese culture ever since I was in college and went on Semester at Sea my junior year. I love everything about it including the rich history and struggles so I was excited to read this novel. At first I had trouble getting into it though as there is so much backstory given to bring the reader up to speed with Lina and her family's present. But then as present and past are interwoven, it becomes clearer and more engaging as we have the Zhen family and Sunny as their housekeeper/nanny. We see the two different worlds of the affluent and the subservient, and later when her brother-in-law comes to visit we witness the buried secrets that have long plagued Lina as her worlds collide. Rich prose and nuanced language make this novel a very satisfying read that will resonate long after you have finished!
Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!
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