It is the middle of the night, a dark, moonless night, when a man -- a small man who, though past forty, has never been as fit as he is now, his days filled with running and the endless lifting of makeshift weights -- removes a painting from the lobby wall.
Having recently lost his wife in a horrible accident, Zhang Feng-qi tries to bring up his sons as best as he can, but he is not his wife - he cannot maintain his condo as well as his wife did, nor can he properly answer his two sons, Simon and Wesley, when they insist that their mother will come back. He wonders if his new girlfriend can step in, but knows it is too early to introduce her to the family. He asks his American mother-in-law to help, but she was never supportive of her daughter's marriage so her response isn't that forthcoming. Eventually, he asks his father for help. While the Zhang household is dealing with its own situation, their neighbors are having their own problems - a painter mourns the absence of his love lives and the non-popularity of his paintings, a sculptor isn't sure what to do with the knowledge that he has a son by one of his muses, an insecure woman grapples with her distaste of her long-time boyfriend and his abusive bedroom games.
What the Zhang Boys Know is my favorite kind of book - multiple interlinked narrators, who all talk of their lives and problems and occasionally share opinions on other characters. What I love of this book is how very "I" and "me" each story tends to be, while the protagonist of that story makes other characters feel one-dimensional. And in the next story, one of those one-dimensional characters is now the protagonist - suddenly the reader gets this whole bedroom closet view of a new character and learn things you never guessed about that character. I find these kind of books to be the most realistic among fictional works. The narrators aren't bogged with the same plot, so there is no feeling of too many characters. They all have their troubles, desires, losses and achievements - no one is a pawn to move another person's story forward, which is how real life is.
With 11 different narrators, there are as many different voices and obsessions in the book. Some are insecure, some depressed, one arrogant and proud, and another one innocent. Among all these narrators with their myriad problems, the Zhang boys appear everywhere. They see more than anyone gives them credit, and it's fascinating reading the same incident from the two perspectives. At the same time, even when they are not accepting enough of their father's new girlfriend, they aren't being unreasonable, they are simply afraid that their mother will never come back if there's another woman in the house.
Some stories were clearly more enjoyable than others; some narrators more understandable than others. There is a woman, Claudia, who loses her husband and her job at the same time, and what follows is many long months of trying, at first, to find a respectable job, and later on, any kind of job. A sister helps her a bit but eventually accuses her of being too irresponsible. Even though the sister is right, and anyone would do exactly what the sister did, it is hard to not empathize with Claudia, after spending pages with her, and seeing how much she really is trying and just how close she is to even contemplating suicide.
I received this book for free for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.