Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

Happy Family

A Novel

by Wendy Lee

“Rich and multilayered, Lee’s novel explores what it means to be a part of something, whether it’s a family or a culture. Told in Hua’s sparse, somber voice, the story grabs readers from the start and doesn’t let go until the final page. A truly memorable first outing.” —Kristine Huntley, Booklist (starred review)

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 240
  • Publication Date June 17, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7046-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

When Hua Wu arrives in New York City, her life seems destined to resemble that of countless immigrants before her. She spends her hectic days working in a restaurant in Chinatown, and her lonesome nights in a noisy, crowded tenement, yearning for those she left behind in Fuzhou, China.

But one day in a park in the West Village, a chance encounter alters the course of Hua’s life, as well as the lives of others. She meets Jane Templeton and her daughter, Lily, a two-year-old adopted from China. Eager to expose Lily to the language and culture of the country of her birth, Jane decides to hire Hua to be her nanny.

From the moment she steps into Jane’s brownstone apartment, Hua finds herself in a world far removed from the cramped streets of Chinatown or her grandmother’s home in Fuzhou. Jane, a museum curator of Asian art, and her husband, a theater critic, are cultured and successful. They pull Hua into their circle of family and friends until she is deeply attached to Lily and their way of life. But when cracks show in the family’s perfect facade, what will Hua do to protect the little girl who reminds her so much of her own past?

A beautiful and revelatory novel with a deceptively simple premise, Happy Family is a promising debut from a perceptive and graceful writer.

Tags Literary


“Heartfelt. . . . Impassioned storytelling.” —Publishers Weekly

“Required reading . . . [a] moving debut.” —Billy Heller, New York Post

“Rich and multilayered, Lee’s novel explores what it means to be a part of something, whether it’s a family or a culture. Told in Hua’s sparse, somber voice, the story grabs readers from the start and doesn’t let go until the final page. A truly memorable first outing.” —Kristine Huntley, Booklist (starred review)

“Lee’s accomplished debut limns Chinese immigrant Hua Wu’s experiences in New York City; rich and multilayered, the story explores what it means to be a part of something, whether it’s a family or a culture.” —Brad Hooper, Booklist, “Top 10 First Novels: 2008”

“Functional families? Puh-lease. No one wants to read about those (snoozefest). Dysfunction, on the other hand, makes for a damn good story. Proof: Wendy Lee’s misnomered debut novel, Happy Family. . . . [Happy Family] deftly explores the nature of intimacy and family—and the woes of loss.” —Daily Candy Seattle

“Lee handles the complexities of international adoption adroitly, remaining empathetic without being saccharine.” —Andrea Millar, Curve Magazine

“Resonates long after the last page.” —Terry Hong, The Bloomsbury Review

“Through Hua, Lee treats the moral and emotional ramifications of international adoption, as well as the contrast between adoption and immigration, with all the nuance they deserve. . . . [Happy Family is] thoughtful and perceptive. [Lee] deals with a hot-button issue in a manner neither shy nor didactic, and she invests her characters with humanity when they might easily become sociological types. Happy Family is worth reading for those reasons alone, and serves as the debut of a writer who may well do great work later on.” —Anna North, San Francisco Chronicle

“Elegantly suspenseful.” —Stanford Magazine

“First novelist Lee’s craftsmanship is evident in sparse but expressive prose. She carefully and insightfully handles the contentious issue of the adoption of Chinese children . . . This debut delivers on the promise of Lee’s interesting premise. Recommended for large fiction collections.” —Library Journal

“Wendy Lee’s moving debut novel explores the deep emotions surrounding adoption and cultural ties through Hua Wu, an immigrant in New York hired by a white woman to be a nanny to her adopted Chinese daughter.” —Audrey Magazine

“Spare but emotionally authoritative prose. . . . Deceptively simple, Happy Family is in fact a serious exploration of culture shock and of the havoc great historical forces can wreak on private lives.” —Brooke Allen, Barnes & Noble Review

“Wendy Lee’s moving and assured first novel unravels the tangled knot of international adoption to reveal its finest, most delicate threads: the uncertainties of parenthood, the unexpected affections between strangers, and, ultimately, the origins of enduring love.” —Dana Sachs, author of If You Lived Here: A Novel, and The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam

“For anyone who wants to delve into the troubled psyche of the many silent millions in this country, this moving tale of a young Chinese immigrant woman who is handpicked to care for a child closer to herself than its legal mother, is required reading. Like the novel’s misleadingly innocuous title, Wendy Lee’s intentionally light hand allows for the showcasing of some very courageous and harrowing brush strokes.” —Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects

Happy Family is a beautifully written portrait of a young Chinese immigrant finding her way in New York City. Told in lyrical prose and filled with surprising insights, this story is sure to dazzle readers and touch them deeply.” —John Searles, author of Boy Still Missing and Strange but True

“Even just describing the premise of this novel brings a certain anxiety: a Chinese au pair is hired by a white couple who’ve adopted a Chinese daughter. Wendy Lee debuts with a quietly dangerous novel of domestic life, about that anxiety, asking the uncomfortable questions: who do we belong to and who do we belong with, and can we change that? The story moves among some of the new taboos in American life as we live it now, sure-footed and unflinching, funny and smart—a remarkable first novel.” —Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh

“Lee’s sure-footed debut locates the raw nerve connecting two social phenomena—China’s one-child law and the adoption of Chinese babies by American parents. Hua, Lee’s stranger in a strange land, speaks in a soft but firm voice from the ineradicable margin.” —Ed Park, author of Personal Days

“We can endure being unrecognized for just so long. The main character of this beautifully written, passionately accurate novel looks back on her passage to the point at which the isolation became unbearable, and the action she took in response to reaching it: breaking through the first of the concentric circles of people surrounding her—a family—and setting out on a dangerous journey outward. That she survives, that she has stopped moving, that she remains capable of love, that she can tell us about it . . . these are the achievements this revelatory and original book.” —Chuck Wachtel, author of The Gates

“Wendy Lee’s Happy Family is a delicate and moving coming-of-age story. In deft, sparing prose, this gifted young writer explores New York City through the eyes of a newly arrived Chinese immigrant. At the same time, Ms. Lee finds her way into that civilized wilderness, the human heart.” —Paul Kafka-Gibbons, Los Angeles Times Book Prize-winning author of Love: Enter and Dupont Circle


Chapter One

I first met Lily and her mother in late winter, about three months after I had arrived in America. In that time, I had established a routine. Every day I took the same path from the boardinghouse where I lived to the restaurant where I worked, and back again. Once a week, on my half day off, I walked toward the water so that the breeze would carry away the oily smell in my hair and the customers’ voices ringing in my ears. I went south to Battery Park, where I watched the ferries loaded with tourists heading for Ellis Island. Or I walked east underneath the Manhattan Bridge, with the traffic rushing overhead, or west to the Hudson River opposite the New Jersey shoreline where boats passed with their white sails aloft.

On my trip over to America, I’d comforted myself with the thought that I would be going to live in a place near the water. I was from Fuzhou, a city on the southeastern coast of China that was bisected by a river that ran to the ocean.

I’d lived in the part of the city that lay on an island so large you couldn’t tell you were on an island, except that the main sprawl of the city shone across the water. So I told myself that Manhattan was only an island, too, no matter how large or inhospitable.

But that winter day, I decided to walk north toward the interior of the city. The frigid weather did little to temper the smells of the Chinatown streets, of garbage and food scraps and rotting fruit. Piles of snow that had fallen weeks before had turned dark and rank, like the ice packed around fish in the markets. Crisp air outlined the buildings and sharpened the honking of car horns and the sound of trucks rumbling down from the bridge. I dug my hands into the pockets of my worn black coat and crossed Canal Street into Little Italy.

Across Broadway, tenements gave way to the cast-iron fronts of buildings with stores below and apartments above. These stores were devoted to single, specific things: clothes for children, coats for dogs, bathroom soaps, French tarts. As I headed west, there were fewer stores and more houses, brownstones that rose four or five stories above the narrow, cobblestoned streets. Some buildings were covered with dead vines and had empty flower boxes in the windows. I tried to imagine what the street would look like in the spring when everything was green and growing. I decided it would look beautiful.

I rounded a corner and came upon a small park shaded by the bare branches of trees. In the other parks I had seen in this city, there were people in suits taking refuge from work, or students with books in their laps, or homeless men sleeping in the sun. In this park, there were only women and children. As I got closer, I saw that these women were not all mothers, or at least not the mothers of the children they were looking after. Their dark eyes rested upon children with skin lighter than their own. Some sat in silence on the benches, while others chatted with each other in sharp-angled languages.

I sat down on a bench and joined in watching the activity before me on the playground. The children appeared fearless. They flung themselves off the swings and down the slides as if confident that someone would be there to catch them. A blond-haired boy chased a girl around the perimeter of the playground until I was sure he would make her trip. In the next moment, they had switched places and she was chasing him. On the other side of the playground, a little boy did trip. He opened his mouth to howl, looking toward the bench where his nanny was sitting. But the woman, whose skin was like wrinkled brown silk, continued to chat with her friend and knit. Her needles flashed through the fine wool of a sweater that looked like it was being made for a larger child, perhaps her own. The little boy closed his mouth and got up without a sound.

The children who were playing alone fascinated me the most. I watched a little girl with glasses gathering twigs, a boy building a tower out of smooth stones. Another girl appeared to be having a conversation with someone only she could see, an imaginary friend more interesting than any of her real-life playmates. I had always played alone as a child. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, or children my age living nearby. My grandmother never bothered to supervise me. The trouble I’d get into, she said, I’d get into anyway. Like most children, I played in the narrow winding streets or along the banks of the river.

I closed my eyes, thinking of the small park that I could see from my grandmother’s house. Every morning, our next-door neighbor would go outside with a songbird in a bamboo cage. He would hang the cage on a tree branch and begin his morning exercises. His arms would trace circles in the hazy dawn as dust rose in clouds around his feet. Other elderly people would join him with their birds, and soon the park would be ringed with cages. As a child I imagined that the birds sang from the joy of being outside. Then, when I was older, I thought it was cruel to give the birds just a glimpse of the world from the imprisonment of their cages. Or maybe that one glimpse was enough. I had never been able to decide.

I opened my eyes to see a woman pushing a little girl in a stroller toward my bench. In their own way, they looked as mismatched as any of the other women and children. The woman was American, tall, with red hair shining above an expensive-looking cream-colored coat. The little girl was Chinese, with black hair cut straight across her forehead, and eyebrows so thick they resembled caterpillars. She wore a pink coat and appeared to be around two years old. When they reached the other end of the bench, the woman gave me a small smile. The little girl looked at me with her thick, dark brows drawn together as if in disapproval. There was something familiar about that look, and I wondered if I’d had the same one on my face when I was a child. Maybe, in some way, the girl recognized that she looked like me.

“Do you want to go play?” the woman asked.

An emphatic nod.

“Go ahead, then. I’ll watch from here.”

The little girl walked toward the other children, taking one uncertain step after the other. The woman opened a book in her lap, but her eyes never left the little girl, as if somehow the sight of the child kept her warm and breathing. That was how I knew, more than anything else, that no matter how different they looked from each other, these two were mother and daughter.

After a moment, the little girl turned around and came back toward her mother. As she got closer, the woman pretended to be absorbed in her book, although a smile remained in the corner of her mouth. It seemed to be a game between them; the little girl tried to get her mother’s attention while her mother pretended not to see her. Finally she grabbed the woman’s hand and tugged on it.

“Shall we go on the swings?” A smile spread across the little girl’s face as if nothing could make her happier. The woman glanced at her watch. “All right, just for a few minutes.”

She placed the book facedown and took the little girl’s hand, leaving her bag on the bench. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. Surely she didn’t mean to leave her bag where someone could take it. Or maybe she trusted me to look after it. At that thought my hands twitched despite themselves. I wanted to turn the book right side up to see what she was reading, to go through her bag and see what else was inside. I went so far as to turn my head so that I could see what was on the cover of the book. To my surprise, it was a history of Chinese brush painting during the Tang Dynasty.

The woman was pushing the little girl higher on the swing. The arc of her arm and the girl’s flying body made a complete motion, as if a current was passing between them. With her short, paintbrush braids, the little girl reminded me of the child I had often seen on government billboards back home, advertising the desirability of having a girl over a boy, to combat traditional views. This image featured a young couple, the father in a suit and the mother in a blouse and skirt. They held the hands of a little girl wearing a school uniform, her pigtails dancing. Everyone was smiling, their cheeks spots of red. The only thing I had in common with the little girl on the billboard was that I was also an only child. At that age my hair had never been allowed to grow past my chin, and my cheeks never got that red unless it was the middle of winter. And, of course, by the time I was old enough to go to school, my parents were dead. They were killed in a factory fire when I was three years old, and my grandmother had brought me up.

Now I noticed that different children were on the swings. I looked around to see that the woman and the little girl were returning to the bench. I moved closer to my end so the woman wouldn’t think I had been looking through her things. She moved past me without a glance and started packing up her bag. Once the little girl had been settled in her stroller, the two moved back the way they had come.

Then I spotted something lying underneath the bench. It was tiny and pink, like a flower or a person’s ear. I picked it up and brushed it off, and discovered that it was a child’s mitten. I remembered its mate on the little girl’s hand; it was the exact shade of pink as her coat. For a second I thought about putting the mitten in my pocket. The little girl’s mother wouldn’t notice it was missing until they got home, and the girl probably had a drawerful of mittens to choose from. I wanted something to remember the little girl and her mother by, in case I never saw them again. Then it occurred to me that they would never remember me unless I did something to make them remember.

“Excuse me,” I called. The little girl and her mother didn’t turn around. I bit my lip and ran after them. “Excuse me!”

I held the mitten out in response to the woman’s questioning look, my tongue suddenly clumsy. “This—is yours?”

“Yes,” the woman said, the creases around her eyes deepening as she took the mitten. At this proximity I could see that she was older than I had originally thought, perhaps in her early forties. “Thank you.” She turned to the little girl. “Say thank you, Lily.”

The girl stared at me from beneath those ridiculously thick brows.

“Say thank you to the nice lady,” her mother prompted.

“Thank you,” Lily whispered, and then hid her face as if too shy to look at me again.

I watched them until the cream-colored blur of the woman’s coat disappeared at the end of the street. Shivering a little, I realized it was time for me to go, too. It was getting late. The sun had dipped behind the brownstones, and the shadows of the children on the swings were lengthening with each flash across the asphalt. I had the walk to Chinatown ahead of me.

A few blocks away from the park, I looked up to see what the names of the streets were so that I could return if I wanted to. I recited them over and over in my head: Greenwich and Jane.

Reading Group Guide

Readers’ Guide by Barbara Putnam

1. In the Preface, Hua writes to Lily: “I hope that by now your parents have forgiven me for loving you as much as they did. If they are still married, maybe they would even thank me” (p. 5). Is this a letter you think Hua actually sent? If so, how likely is it that Lily’s parents would have forgiven Hua? Or thanked her?

2. When Hua learns that her grandparents had once owned a large Western-style house, she wonders why she had never been told. Her grandmother shrugs and says, “What use would that be? What’s lost is lost” (p. 29). Is it understandable that Hua can feel homesick for this house she has never even entered? How is “What’s lost is lost” applicable to other moments in the novel? At one point Hua herself tells Jane that it was fate that led to Lily’s adoption. Do you see this resignation to fate as a particularly Asian attitude?

3. “The Chengs are known for bending in the breeze, for giving in to others. That’s how they get what they want. And that’s what you have to do when you get to America. You have to be what other people want you to be, before you can be yourself” (p. 33). Does her grandmother’s advice to Hua seem well-founded for an immigrant? At what cost? Do you think Hua is guided by it? When?

4. Is Jane foolishly trusting, even from early on, leaving Lily with Hua at the playground while she runs an errand? (p. 58) When does Hua herself take leaps of faith? How is she rewarded? Are there times you think she is na’ve, insouciant or careless? Have you made decisions, leaps of faith, that went against caution and conventional wisdom?

5. Talk about some of the complicated issues involved in foreign adoptions. Why is it that Jane went to the trouble and expense of adopting a Chinese baby instead of an American? Hua says about Lily, “There must be some kind of shame attached to her that no one would ever know, least of all her new parents. She had no background, no history, except for what was in her new home” (p. 55). What are the cultural and legal questions she refers to? Hua says later, “She’ll grow up knowing nothing about her homeland. She’ll be worse than those American-born Chinese” (p. 107). Do you agree?

6. In the Chinatowns of New York and other cities, transplants can nourish their memories and reinforce their Chinese identity. Elsewhere, immigrants may be forced to assimilate. Which atmosphere do you think serves them better in the end?

7. What is the basis for this comment of Hua’s about Lily, “She, for one, would be carrying a lot of weight on her shoulders when she grew up”? (p. 164) How is it related to Hua’s question, “Were all children, in some way, a form of redemption for their parents?” (p.164). Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

8. In Lee’s novel, how does the geography of New York City become part of the story? What does Hua seek in her perambulations? What reminds her of her childhood in China?

9. How does Hua’s playacting lead to a kind of identity theft? (Think of her in Jane’s bedroom and at the playground. In fact, think of her subterfuge at the airport.) Is this a process that happens in stages? In forging a new identity, how is she writing her own story?

10. Talk about the title, Happy Family. Do you gather that Richard and Jane have ever been truly “happy”? What are the other marriages like in the book? Her uncle and aunt? Her own parents? Does the California setting offer new hope? How?

11. What do you learn about what it is to be Chinese American? Do you see inevitable differences between Asian immigrants and, say, European ones? What do you think happens to Hua after the end of the book? Do you think she will succeed in her new life?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang; Bone by Fae M. Ng; Typical American by Gish Jen; China Boy by Gus Lee; American Visa by Wang Ping; The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston