Review: Mambo in Chinatown

Mambo in ChinatownJean Kwok, Mambo in Chinatown

Charlie Wong is a 22-year-old woman who lives with her Pa and her younger sister, Lisa, in New York City’s Chinatown. Although Charlie has lived her entire life in the U.S., she has very little contact with the world outside Chinatown. She works as a dishwasher in the restaurant where Pa makes noodles, but she dreams of a different life; so when she learns that a ballroom dance studio is hiring a new receptionist, she jumps at the opportunity. At first, her impulsive decision seems disastrous — she’s too shy, her clothes are all wrong, and she has trouble reading and writing down the dancers’ appointments. But when, due to a scheduling error, she is forced to teach an introductory class, Charlie realizes she has a gift for dancing. As Charlie learns more and more about ballroom, she also becomes more confident and optimistic about her future. But when her sister Lisa falls ill, and Pa will only use Eastern methods to treat her, Charlie wonders if she can truly reconcile her two different worlds.

This book is the literary equivalent of a feel-good movie; maybe it’s not great literature, but it’s entertaining and heartwarming. I really liked Charlie, even though her character arc is somewhat unbelievable (she goes from being a receptionist to a teacher in a matter of months!). She feels shy and perpetually clumsy, and she doesn’t really know how to react to this unfamiliar world of ballroom dancing. Watching her struggle to open up and be more confident was a pleasure, and I felt I could relate to her to some extent. I also enjoyed the portrayal of the Chinese community in this book, as Charlie begins to question some aspects of her upbringing while embracing others. I especially liked that Pa, the voice of tradition in the novel, is portrayed as a sympathetic character even though he doesn’t agree with all of Charlie’s choices. There’s also a sweet romance and a few tidbits about ballroom dancing, which I enjoyed. Overall, I’d recommend this to fans of chick lit or feel-good stories — it definitely left me smiling!

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