Joan Is Okay

Weike Wang

Joan Is Okay
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Joan Is Okay

Weike Wang

Joan is a thirtysomething ICU doctor at a busy New York City hospital. The daughter of Chinese parents who came to the United States to secure the American dream for their children, Joan is intensely devoted to her work, happily solitary, successful. She does sometimes wonder where her true roots lie: at the hospital, where her white coat makes her feel needed, or with her family, who try to shape her life by their own cultural and social expectations.


Once Joan and her brother, Fang, were established in their careers, her parents moved back to China, hoping to spend the rest of their lives in their homeland. But when Joan’s father suddenly dies and her mother returns to America to reconnect with her children, a series of events sends Joan spiralling out of her comfort zone just as her hospital, her city, and the world are forced to reckon with a health crisis more devastating than anyone could have imagined.

Deceptively spare yet quietly powerful, laced with sharp humour, Joan Is Okay touches on matters that feel deeply resonant: being Chinese-American right now; working in medicine at a high-stakes time; finding one’s voice within a dominant culture; being a woman in a male-dominated workplace; and staying independent within a tight-knit family. But above all, it’s a portrait of one remarkable woman so surprising that you can’t get her out of your head.

Review

Joan is okay. At least as far as she is concerned. She’s in her thirties, with a successful career as an ICU doctor at a busy New York City hospital. She has fulfilled the American Dream that her parents left China for, though they returned to their homeland once their children – Joan and her brother Fang – had grown and settled. Joan’s life is solitary but focused, simple and secure. However, following the death of her father, her mother returns to the US for an extended visit and a series of unexpected events challenges Joan’s way of life. Her workplace expects her to be, at turns, more and less ambitious; more and less delicate. Her brother expects her to place family above all else and her sister-in-law thinks she should have children in order to experience true fulfilment and happiness.

Towards the end of the novel a terrible pandemic makes its way from Wuhan to New York. As Joan is a Chinese-American doctor working in an ICU in New York City, the reader spends this final section wondering if Joan really will be okay.

About four to six months after COVID-19 took off, nonfiction books about the pandemic were being published (and purchased) in droves. Fiction, however, has taken its time in dealing with the coronavirus. I can count on one hand the novels I have read in the past two years that feature our current global pandemic. Maybe because we are living it, we need fiction to escape from it. Maybe because the trauma of our collective experiences is too raw. Maybe because lockdown feels like a fundamentally undramatic event. I predict that Weike Wang’s novel will be on the vanguard of a wave of fiction featuring COVID-19. If you are wary of reading Joan Is Okay because of the pandemic, please note that it very much takes a supporting rather than starring role in this brilliant and often funny narrative.


Tristen Brudy is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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