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East Meets West

By Margaret Black

Repeat After Me: A Novel

By Rachel DeWoskin

The Overlook Press, 230 pages, $23.95

Four years ago, Rachel DeWos kin bounced onto the literary scene with a funny, insightful memoir about a time just out of college when she worked for a PR firm in Beijing. Much to her surprise and delight, she was cast to play the part of an American temptress in what became a wildly popular Chinese TV soap opera called Foreign Babes in Beijing. While DeWoskin’s book touched on many serious subjects, the plot of the soap opera and her hilarious experiences while filming were what swept readers along.

In Repeat After Me, DeWoskin has boldly sought to transmute her knowledge of China and her very considerable writing talent into fiction, this time by confecting a cross-cultural love story between Aysha Silvermintz, a very troubled young American English teacher in New York City, and Da Ge, an an irritable, volatile young pupil, whose father has sent him away from Beijing to protect him from the fallout of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989.

The novel presents three separate storylines. The first comes in the form of Da Ge’s writing assignments for Aysha’s class, and these reveal increasingly complex information about his background, in modestly fractured English. The humor of his language contrasts markedly with the events being related, and this skillful creation is one of the most imaginative parts of the book. The second narration is Aysha’s, in which she tells what happens from September 1989, when she first meets Da Ge, until August 1990, when he dies. The third account, also Aysha’s, takes place in Beijing 13 years later, where Aysha describes the life she and her daughter by Da Ge are living. This story, too, follows the year from September to August. The author juggles her complex structure very adeptly, keeping all three accounts lively. Each segment involves and affects the others, and yet DeWoskin cleverly manages to generate and maintain a considerable degree of suspense.

It is not altogether clear at the beginning just how emotionally wrecked Aysha is. While we see her playing obsessive mental number games to determine whether things will work or blow up in her face, and while her closest friend and her mother seem preternaturally indulgent of her needs, it is not until we are well into the novel that we discover she has actually been hospitalized, following a total collapse. She’d discovered her father’s affair with a young student and told her mother about it, thus ending her parents’ marriage. Because we don’t know this earlier, it’s hard to credit that Aysha would respond as warmly as she does to Da Ge, whose sullen behavior is marred by a lot more than problematic English. Even crediting Aysha with being exceptionally open to every effort her students make, Da Ge seems like a bad bet for intimacy. That he has serious problems is apparent from the start, and the tragedy of his life builds convincingly.

Aysha’s life in Beijing 13 years later, however, reveals all manner of time-honored cures for the sufferings of 1989: motherhood, friends, and a carefully established, close relationship with Da Ge’s father. Aysha now enjoys a clutch of women friends—some American, some Chinese—who all have daughters, and she has a good university teaching job. There’s even a new man in the wings, even if he is a little too perfect to believe. Now, however, the language and cultural tables are turned, for Aysha is the foreigner in a foreign land. This again provides some humor—her errors appall and delight her totally bilingual daughter—and it’s also an acknowledgment that it’s easy to make foreigners struggling with English sound funny.

DeWoskin has down pat the many confusions and surprises of cross- cultural difference and misunderstanding, but she also succeeds in making them individual. Xiao Wang, a student of Aysha’s in 1989, has come to live in New York’s Chinatown in order to care for her elderly grandmother. It is only after the old woman dies that Xiao Wang can finally return to her husband in China and take up a career of her own. To Aysha, Xiao Wang seems puritanically bent on sacrificing herself to duty and high moral standards, yet when Aysha skates around the truth of her parents’ divorce, fearing to shock both Xiao Wang and her grandmother, Xiao Wang is quite matter-of-fact and nonjudgmental about love affairs. Later, when Xiao Wang and Aysha become friends in China, there appears to be as great a cultural distance between the life of Xiao Wang’s mother in South China and that of Xiao Wang and Aysha in Beijing.

The author has assembled a rich collection of characters, most of them beautifully realized. But she doesn’t manage to keep up with some of them, like Da Ge’s sinister uncle or her own father for that matter, a nonrelationship that creates the biggest, most inexplicable hole in the novel.

More than a love story about a man and a woman, Repeat After Me is really a paeon to friendship among women and to an ideal of family ties, manifest in this story between Aysha, her mother, her daughter, and Da Ge’s father. The novel may lack the humor of Foreign Babes, and it avoids all the political threat that was just under the surface of that memoir, but it’s a well-told complex story of interesting people.

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