Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang
Published by Random House
Publication date: January 18, 2022
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Literary
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Joan is happy with her life. She loves her job as an ICU doctor at a NYC hospital. Her boss thinks she’s amazing. She has a nice apartment in a doorman building. Why then do so many of the people around her think she needs fixing? Her older brother believes there’s something wrong with her because she’s not married with children. Her new neighbor thinks she needs friends and furniture. Her mother thinks she’s too thin. Weike Wang’s new novel, Joan is Okay, is about one woman caught in a pressure cooker of traditional cultural values, racism, entitlement, and gender expectations. With so many people certain they know what is best for her, what does Joan want?
On the surface it seems clear that Joan has what she wants. She finds her work compelling. The hospital is her home. In the ICU there is no room for interpretation. The data is laid out and the options are clear. There’s a symmetry and completeness to it that soothes her. This insight goes a long way towards showing what Joan is and what she isn’t. She isn’t someone who thinks about her biological clock, office politics, what money can buy, or social niceties. She simply doesn’t care, but it gives the people around her the opportunity to force their interpretations of a good life on her. From her overfriendly White neighbor Mark to her brother who bullies her about being bullied. Wang is sly in how she constructs Joan’s world. The clues are all there, but they’re subtle. As a woman, a Chinese woman in America, Joan is not capable of knowing what she needs.
Joan is Okay will be an emotional respite to anyone who’s been reading a lot of challenging fiction lately, but will seem cold and a bit formal to others. This is not to say Joan is without emotion, she is simply a doctor, first and foremost. That, coupled with a nature that takes the world literally means she’s an odd duck to those around her. But beneath her placidly serious surface she paddles emotions that only the reader gets to see. Such as after her father tells her university is the place to make connections and if she does it right, she could end up being a senator’s wife.
The famed MRS degree, because in practice, a female brain is worth nothing. Fore lobes of the cerebrum, and I have sometimes imagined one of mine is labeled RAGE.
In this way, Joan is Okay shifts from being the singular experience of a Chinese American woman to something larger and a bit more recognizable. The myth of the good daughter, the good employee, the good neighbor. Conforming for conformity’s sake, achieving, but without stepping on anyone’s toes. Joan is Okay is not a novel of action and will be too slow for some, but I welcomed the interplay between the inner and outer Joan.
Much like Joan, the narrator in Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is another Asian woman trying to live life her own way in a culture that values conformity.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Random House in exchange for an honest review.*