Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwokby Jean Kwok

4 Stars

A complimentary advanced reader copy of this book was provided by Riverhead Books in exchange for an honest review. (Thank you!) My review was in no way influenced by this consideration.

Soooo, I dare you not to love this book.

Mambo in Chinatown is the story of Charlie Wong, a Chinese-American young woman who feels like she’s stuck in her own life. Her father is a noodle maker at the local noodle restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. Charlie works there too, badly, as a dishwasher. She hates her job, but she’s clumsy and terrible at most everything else. Her mother has died, and she knows her father and her little sister, Lisa, depend on her help.

And then Charlie sees an ad for a receptionist in a ballroom dance studio, and everyone’s lives start to change.

I found it absolutely impossible not to fall in love with this story. I alternated between seeing myself in Charlie and wanting to adopt her and her family–they struggled so hard just to make things a little better. Charlie, in particular, has such a lovely character arc. In the middle of the book, noting the girl who’s transforming from a self-cloaking wallflower into a young woman with a little bit of skittish sass is really amusing. Her interactions with her father, her sister, and her student Ryan are written with a nice, satisfying emotional roundness that makes this book so enjoyable to read.

Kwok’s writing, as in Girl in Translation, is infused with culture, color, and a brightness that is specific to her voice. Her characters are lively and full of personality; they are people we would like to meet, and who would bring richness to our lives. Mambo, though, is completely different from Girl in tone, subject matter, and most of its themes–something we don’t always find in a sophomore novel. I was impressed by how fresh and charming Mambo was in every way.

As for the plot and setting, I couldn’t have loved it more. I took several years of ballet, growing up, and even a few ballroom dance classes in college. Reading about all the costumes, steps, and a little bit of the technicality happening in the studio swept me right back to those days! I absolutely adored it. There’s nothing here, though, that requires any dance background for a reader’s understanding or enjoyment, at all–it’s well-written and -explained, and it’s great fun.

Mambo in Chinatown released on Tuesday, and it’s just plain great reading! Pick up a copy and find out for yourself: what happens to Charlie and her family? Does she mambo? Will she find love??

Two f-bombs. Otherwise completely clean. Lots of kissing, and a will-they/won’t-they love story! 4 stars.

First Line: “My name is Charlie Wong and I’m the daughter of a dancer and a noodle-maker.”

4 Stars

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