This is a short novel told in the present tense by a narrator who tells us a great deal about herself even though we never learn her name. She is a Chinese-American Ph.D. student in chemistry, with a boyfriend a year ahead of her named Eric. Eric wants them to get married, but she doesn’t really know how to love, and in any event she thinks marriages are doomed to fail, based on her limited knowledge of her own family. Her parents are cold, judgmental, and emotionally abusive (although she still feels very tied to them and their expectations for her). She never saw them affectionate with each other either; rather, it seemed like there was only hate between them, punctuated by violent rages. While they pushed her intellectually, she got no modeling or support whatsoever for handling any uncertainty or for experiencing a loving relationship. To say she is not in touch with her emotions is an understatement. She deals with any uncomfortable feelings or thoughts by lashing out in anger or retreating into science.
The narrator has a nervous breakdown and drops out of school. (Her mother says, “Don’t call me again. Don’t even think about coming home. You are nothing to me without that degree.” ) She acknowledges feeling fear and guilt about the reaction of her parents: “I can’t stand it when they are mad at me. I can’t sleep, and once I can’t sleep, I can’t do much of anything else.”
Eric doesn’t understand the power her parents have over her, but as the narrator maintains in frustration, he could never understand what it means to have parents whose ties to you are so warped. You need whatever they give you, even if it is cruel and unhealthy. Eric observed that she protects herself with a metaphorical barrier of ten-inch-thick bulletproof glass, and behind this glass, he noted, there is more glass. He also felt like she carried a ball of barbed wire close to her chest that she sometimes threw at other people. After her breakdown, when she became increasingly self-destructive, he insisted she go see a therapist. In spite of everything, Eric is patient and supportive, and wants to help her. It only makes her upset. Why is he so nice? Why is his family so nice? Why is he like he is and she cannot be like that? She doesn’t want her heart locked up, but there it is.
Then Eric accepts a job at Oberlin, and the narrator stays back in Boston, where she struggles to regenerate herself and to let her heart out of its sealed container. But is it too late? There is a possibility that the wall she is built around her emotions is like the Great Wall of China, which is so durable it has lasted since as early as the 7th century BCE, and so large it can be seen from the moon.
Evaluation: This book is well-written, with a number of metaphorical themes suggested by the title cleverly reflected by the plot. But the main character is so cooly analytical and unemotional that it was hard for me to warm up to her or even to feel her pain. I wasn’t especially taken by the way it ended either. But I must say this book has gotten rave reviews by others.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2017