In 'Trust,' A Selfish, Unlikeable Family Makes For A Compelling Read Kathy Wang's new novel centers around a dying patriarch who's been hinting for years that he's sitting on a fortune, and the gleefully selfish, myopic family that's jockeying for the money.
NPR logo In 'Trust,' A Selfish, Unlikeable Family Makes For A Compelling Read

In 'Trust,' A Selfish, Unlikeable Family Makes For A Compelling Read

Family Trust opens with bad news: Huang family patriarch Stanley has pancreatic cancer. He is dying. The information causes his two children, Fred and Kate, and his ex-wife Linda, to snap to attention.

For years Stanley has been insinuating that he's sitting on a small fortune. Spurred on by Linda's wry hints, Fred and Kate begin spending more time with their ill-tempered father, hoping the nest egg he's accrued will gloss over the many problems adulthood has brought with it. Stanley's current wife, the 28-years-younger Mary, looks on in dismay, her quiet life of pleasing Stanley with extravagant meals and foot-rubs upended by the family's insistence on spending time together.

Though the book is written in third person, each chapter tackles a different point of view, each character grappling with their own reality as well as the news that Stanley is dying. And threaded throughout each of the character's musings about the way their lives have turned out is the theme of luck: Fred, Linda and Kate think about this constantly, wondering what choices and situations might have propelled them into a different direction. It's their hunger to believe that they're not actually the masters of their own destinies that makes Family Trust such an addictive read.

Wang's novel is a study in the difference between expectation and reality. Fred and Kate both struggle with disappointment: Fred bemoans the way he went from Harvard Business School graduate, groomed for success, to making only $325,000 a year at a middle-tier firm in Silicon Valley — a job in which he's not even allowed to fly business class. Kate, on the other hand, is the sole breadwinner in her family, raising two younger children, often single-handedly managing her mother, and supporting her "entrepreneur" husband who whiles his time away in his attic-cum-home office, wondering when things will become easier.

Peppered through the accounts of their daily life are Wang's insights on the pressures of being a "model minority" in what is ostensibly one of the most progressive areas in the country: Silicon Valley. These tidbits are surprising and often delightful: When 72-year-old Linda signs up for an online dating service, her exasperation and intrigues are addictive and cringe-worthy in equal measure. In a flashback, Fred's former girlfriend accidentally reveals that she feels more desirable because she's white and blonde, and Fred's reaction unveils his own exhaustion with racist stereotypes.

But Family Trust is at its best when it's telling us a truth about Silicon Valley: that racism and greed operate here as well — no measure of assimilation or success can change that. Fred takes his current — blonde, Hungarian — girlfriend's parents out to an expensive meal, only to realize that they believe he's taken them somewhere cheap because the patrons at the restaurant are not all white. Kate suffers through a breakfast pastry continually interrupted by a woman asking her why white men keep dating Asian women. And a particularly compelling scene has Linda navigating through a Silicon Valley Whole Foods, dismayed at how the giant store is packed with aisles so narrow it's hard to get through.

Astute readers may see the writing on the wall early in the book — I certainly did — but this didn't stop me from wanting to read until the end: Most of Wang's characters are so selfish and unlikeable that their quirks and myopia ultimately made them likeable; I wanted to see how their lives would turn out, sometimes even rooting for them to hit rock-bottom just so that I could root for them to pick themselves up. This is a sleight-of-hand Wang executes with real skill.

Though the displays of ostentation and wealth aren't as over-the-top as those in Crazy Rich Asians, comparisons between both books are inevitable: both deal with Chinese families, discuss similar overarching themes about consumerism and both have characters who care with the same zeal about brand names and real estate developments. But Family Trust is a captivating read in its own right — a story about families and what connects everyone to one another, about the ties that bind and what the comfort that financial security can bring to people inside the hamster wheel of American consumerism.

Mariya Karimjee is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on This American Life, LitHub and BuzzFeed. Her forthcoming memoir will be published by Spiegel & Grau.