‘Paradise’ has 2/3 of a Great Book

CW: Suicide, Incest, Sexual Abuse

There’s this seafood restaurant downtown that is pretty pricy, but once my husband and I were given a gift card for it. The first two courses were incredible—fresh, flavorful, succulent. The third was bizarre and borderline inedible, though we may have just thought it was so gross because we’re uncultured swine, apparently. Although the bulk of our meal was incredible, that flop of a third course left such a bad taste in our mouths (pun intended) that when we pass it, we still wrinkle our noses and bring up the “salmon on a shingle” incident. 

I found myself thinking about that restaurant experience a lot after reading The Border of Paradise. Like Iraq + 100, The Border of Paradise is one of the oldest outstanding on my list. I’ve been especially excited to read it since I read Esmé Weijun Wang’s excellent collection of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, just before the pandemic last year. The language did not disappoint, nor did the melancholy I anticipated from the back-cover description. But the story took a surprising (to me) turn about midway through that, and although it came back to its earlier themes near the end, I’m still trying to puzzle where that turn fit in.

Still great writing, but for what purpose>

The Border of Paradise centers on David Nowack, the only son of a prominent piano maker who has the grave misfortune to be mentally ill in the 1950s, presumably schizophrenia. The cracks from his illness are small at first but grow progressively larger until their upper-class circle starts to talk. Things only get worse when David’s father dies suddenly, leaving the family business squarely upon David’s young shoulders. David is in love with Marianne, sister of his best friend Marty, and although both families initially support their union, Marianne’s grows reluctant in the face of David’s fraying tether to reality. Her father forbids him from seeing her again. David sells the family business and follows joins Marty in Taiwan, where the latter has been stationed with the Navy. It is there David meets Jia-Hui, whom David renames Daisy and brings back to America as his “exotic” wife. Daisy bears David a son, William, and a short fling with Marianne (now a nun) gives him a daughter, Gillian, whom Marianne gives to David to raise because being a single mother in the 1950s is no joke. David’s eventual suicide, foretold from the very beginning, throws everything off kilter.

That is more or less the description on the back of the book, and that is more or less what two-thirds of the book is about. And it’s a beautiful story, somewhat reminiscent of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies: a brilliant, charismatic dreamer’s blithe neuroses positions him as somewhat of a bull in the china shop his loved ones’ emotional lives, and his patient and ignored wife takes the brunt of it. But it’s beautifully done, and David’s awareness of his limitations due to his mental illness make what could be merely a narrative about neglect and paying for the sins of youthful enthusiasm into a meditative and melancholy tale. And his suicide, when it comes, takes place far off-camera and only in glimpses of anticipation and remembrance. There’s nothing lurid about it, just sorrow.

And then Daisy makes the kids hook up.

There’s a little more nuance to it than that—Daisy is operating under what she calls an old-fashioned model of child adoption called tong yang xi, in which a family will take in another child more or less destined to be the partner of their child when both have grown up. We’re introduced to it in the book’s early chapters, when one of Daisy’s friends reveals she was supposed to be a tong yang xi but her adoptive family’s son didn’t think she was pretty enough. Daisy decides Gillian will be William’s tong yang xi when they are young, and when she decides this, she’s in a strange foreign country with a husband she can’t trust to not kill himself, cut off from civilization in their strange little house in the middle of nowhere, and being asked to raise another woman’s child conceived as a result of her husband’s infidelity. But her deciding to go through with the plan after David’s death, when Gillian is ONLY 13 YEARS OLD, was unexpected.

When, after several pages of saying “They’re not going to really do this,” they DID.

Apparently I should have read Flowers in the Attic to prepare myself for this turn of events, but I don’t think I should have been reasonably expected to expect the story to go in the direction of incest and rape (I did find a review that said the story has “forbidden attraction,” which I thought referred to the affair with Marianne, not literal children who are half-siblings being forced to have sex on threat of punishment from Daisy). It’s true that Wang could have been more lurid with this part of the story, which is the focus of about a third of the not-quite-300-page book, and I did appreciate her restraint, but given how delicately she painted David’s struggle with mental illness and how otherwise lovely and focused the story was on the stated themes of the ripples of one oddly charismatic man’s suicide, it felt out of place. Thematically, tonally—it just feels different than the rest of the book.

When the story does return more overtly to the main theme of David’s impact on the people drawn into his wake, I was relieved to return to the book I’d been reading before, but, like the aforementioned restaurant meal, found my memory of everything else that was good and lovely about it had been tainted. Which is a pity, because Wang addresses so well things like religion and cultural prejudice against homosexuality and the displacement that comes with coming of age. She handles multiple first-person POVs better than anything I’ve seen in a long time, and treats each character tenderly. But all that is largely overshadowed by a prolonged and, I felt, unnecessary detour. I’ll still read more from Wang, but I’m not sure if I’ll read this one again.

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