Diamond Head: A Novel

  • By Cecily Wong
  • HarperCollins
  • 320 pp.

A sweeping, multigenerational saga tells the story of a fabulously wealthy Chinese-Hawaiian family that harbors dark secrets.

Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. If there is a gun sight on it, it's a thriller. A chesty woman swooning in the arms of a muscular man signals a bodice-ripper. And a close-up of a woman that does not show her whole face but usually includes lush lips and/or a high-standing mandarin collar means a multigenerational saga of a family of Chinese women.

One step removed from the bodice-ripper, the genre could be called a cheongsam-ripper (for the traditional one-piece dress), inevitably featuring family secrets, thwarted love, and girls sold into concubinage or prostitution. Recent examples of books with these covers are Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement, Lisa See's Dreams of Joy, and Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Painter from Shanghai. Add to the list Cecily Wong's debut novel, Diamond Head.

There is a formula to these books, which includes headstrong women who often make the wrong choice, a liberal sprinkling of allusions to ancient Chinese proverbs, and flashbacks to a pre-communist China rife with superstition, tradition, and betrayal.

The ancient Chinese proverb featured in Diamond Head is the invisible red string that "connects destined lovers, despite time or place or circumstance. It can stretch and tangle, but never can it break." The reader discovers how that red thread has knotted and entangled three generations of Leong women: matriarch Lin; her daughter-in-law, Amy; and Amy's daughter, Theresa.

Lin is rescued from a hardscrabble life by the enterprising Frank Leong, who buys her from her abusive father. When she fails to give him children, she procures a concubine for her husband who gives birth to a son, Bohai, and then conveniently dies.

In the meantime, while China is in turmoil as the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 is brutally crushed and foreigners carve up the nation, Frank is making his fortune in the shipping business. By 1914, he decides to immigrate to Hawaii, where, at the base of Diamond Head, he builds a sumptuous mansion "both alarming and dazzling in its grandness, its strange shape and delicate formation."

Soon afterward, Lin gives birth to a son, Kaipo.

While Kaipo is handsome, charming, and charismatic, Bohai is awkward, silent, and bookish. Desperate to make a normal man of her strange oldest son, Lin recruits Amy, the beautiful daughter of an impoverished, drunken photographer, to marry Bohai.

But Amy has just fallen in love with another man whom she promises to marry before he leaves for war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Which way will her red string tug her? Quickly seduced by the luxurious lifestyle of the Leong family, she marries Bohai.

Shortly after their wedding, Frank Leong succumbs to thallium poisoning. It comes out that Frank has left not one, but two other wives, each with their own children, back in China. Because he never wrote a will, they inherit his fortune. Devastated by his death and the subsequent revelations, Lin goes mad.

A few years later, Amy gives birth to Theresa, whom she raises with intense devotion. She sews matching outfits for herself and her daughter, and generally indulges and spoils her. Once Theresa hits puberty, she becomes humiliated by her home-sewn clothes, craves popularity and the status symbols of the rich, and becomes a mean girl. Then, during her freshman year at college, she has drunken sex and gets pregnant.

The story begins and ends at Bohai's funeral in 1964, and it is clear Theresa blames her mother for her father's death. Skipping through time to tell the individual stories of the three Leong women and Hong — the wife of Frank's brother who died in the Boxer Rebellion, now the housekeeper at the Diamond Head mansion, the guardian of ancient traditions, and the solid rock upon whom the other women depend — we find out who poisoned Frank, and why that tore mother and daughter apart.

Cecily Wong writes beautiful prose, and the story moves along at a bouncy pace that keeps the pages turning. But details get in the way, making the book feel less like historical fiction and more like fairytale. For instance, why would Frank keep his business accounts in China, which was barely a functioning country when he died in 1942, with nationalists and communists fighting the Japanese and each other? Such a savvy businessman would keep his money safe.

That dramatic moment of lost fortune didn't seem to affect the family much, anyway, as they kept the Diamond Head mansion and their reputation as one of the richest families on Oahu. False details, clichéd drama, and incongruent behavior keep piling up, and though the eye keeps reading, the mind resists.

It is not a surprise that a talented and ambitious Asian-American female writer would choose to write a cheongsam-ripper. These are the type of books that editors find "marketable," as they rely on stereotypes rather than challenge them. They must have a dedicated audience, too, as they keep getting published. But in the age of the irreverent TV series "Fresh Off the Boat"; race-transcending books by authors like Ruth Ozeki, Chang-rae Lee, and Susan Choi; razor-tongued comedians like Bobby Lee and Margaret Cho; and the whole foodie infatuation with Asian cuisines and chefs, can't we move past these jade-and-silk dramas and into the 21st century?

Alice Stephens writes a regular column for the Independent, Alice in Wordland. Be a pioneer and follow her on twitter at @AliceKSStephens.

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