Review What We Were Promised: A Novel by Lucy Tan

#1 New Release in Historical Chinese Fiction

Set in modern Shanghai, a debut by a Chinese-American writer about a prodigal son whose unexpected return forces his newly wealthy family to confront painful secrets and unfulfilled promises.

After years of chasing the American dream, the Zhen family has moved back to China. Settling into a luxurious serviced apartment in Shanghai, Wei, Lina, and their daughter, Karen, join an elite community of Chinese-born, Western-educated professionals who have returned to a radically transformed city.

One morning, in the eighth tower of Lanson Suites, Lina discovers that a treasured ivory bracelet has gone missing. This incident sets off a wave of unease that ripples throughout the Zhen household. Wei, a marketing strategist, bows under the guilt of not having engaged in nobler work. Meanwhile, Lina, lonely in her new life of leisure, assumes the modern moniker taitai-a housewife who does no housework at all. She is haunted by the circumstances surrounding her arranged marriage to Wei and her lingering feelings for his brother, Qiang. Sunny, the family’s housekeeper, is a keen but silent observer of these tensions. An unmarried woman trying to carve a place for herself in society, she understands the power of well-kept secrets. When Qiang reappears in Shanghai after decades on the run with a local gang, the family must finally come to terms with the past and its indelible mark on their futures.

From a silk-producing village in rural China, up the corporate ladder in suburban America, and back again to the post-Maoist nouveaux riches of modern Shanghai, What We Were Promised explores the question of what we owe to our country, our families, and ourselves.

What We Were Promised by [Tan, Lucy]

Editorial Reviews Review

An Amazon Best Book of July 2018: Lucy Tan is a wonderful storyteller. Using smooth prose, carefully developed characters, and Shanghai set against the backdrop of greater China, her debut What We Were Promised brings the Zhen family back to Shanghai to join the upper class after twenty years in the U.S. We see this life through the eyes of characters like husband Wei and wife Lina, but we also see life through the eyes of Sunny, a housekeeper who sends part of her wages back to her family. Tan employs secrets and family drama to drive the plot, all the while examining themes of rich and poor, individualism and tradition, future and past, boredom and ambition. The real joy of this book is getting lost in the characters, some of whom will remain with you long after you have finished the novel. Lucy Tan is an author to watch. –Chris Schluep


Longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize
Barnes & Noble Discover Pick
A Goodreads Recommended ‘July New Release’

Named one of PopSugar’s “30 of the Newest, Hottest Books to Pick Up This Summer”

Named one of “60 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2018″by Huffington Post
Named one of the “10 Most Anticipated Novels of the Summer” by The Every Girl
One of Refinery29’s Brilliant Books to Bring to the Beach This Summer

“With its measuring of expectation against reality, What We Were Promised establishes Tan as a new talent with a sharp eye for the intricacies of human relationships.”―Shelf Awareness

“Tan’s novel will strike a chord with anyone who looks to the future with uncertainty.”―My Domaine

“A compelling story of class, culture, regret, and anxiety about the road not taken.”―Modern Mrs. Darcy

“From fitting in culturally, family dynamics, and self-worth, the story will resonate with anyone who is uncertain and fearful about their future.”―

“Tan’s talent as a storyteller clearly shines through her strong plot lines and characterization; readers will want to know more about each well-crafted player in the story . . . . A novel of class, culture, and expectations; readers who enjoyed works like Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians will likely find Tan’s surprising and down-to-earth tale an entertaining read.”―Library Journal

“I read What We Were Promised in a state of enchantment, immediately drawn into the longings, secrets and very human foibles of its finely-drawn cast of characters. Both intimate and panoramic, Lucy Tan’s debut is a revealing consideration of modern China as well as a thrilling discovery of the generations-long secrets between two families. Compassionate and heartbreaking, funny and wise, local and universal, What We Were Promised marks the arrival of an inspiring new voice.”―Chloe Benjamin, author of The Anatomy of Dreams and The Immortalists

“Lucy Tan brings to vibrant life the self-made, newly cosmopolitan Zhens, who have gone from the tea fields and silk factories of small town China to the luxury high rises of Shanghai in one generation. Abounding in insight and deftly told, What We Were Promised is a story both sweeping and intimate, as this most modern of families discovers they must confront their past in order to find their future. “―Maggie Shipstead, author of Seating Arrangements and Astonish Me

“What We Were Promised is a big beautiful novel. Lucy Tan’s dazzling debut grapples with the persistence of the past, the inevitability of the present, and the difficulty of balancing individuality with community.”―Hannah Pittard, author of Visible Empire and Listen to Me

“In What We Were Promised, Tan skillfully brings to life the issues of modern day China and Shanghai. It is an immigrant story but one that also delves into the subject of going back to one’s homeland. Tan humanizes each and every one of her characters. There is also depth to how the stories of past and present are interwoven. As a reader I felt that I was in good hands.”―Weike Wang, author of Chemistry




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