Joan is Okay. That’s not just the title of Weike Wang’s new novel, it’s also the core question. Is she though? This book is a testament to personhood: vulnerable, witty, inquisitive, and sensitive. It’s masterfully crafted to show the most tender aspects of being human and being family. For these reasons, Joan is Okay is on my must-read list for 2022.
This blog is reader-supported. I earn a small commission from affiliate links in this post when you click on the link (at no cost to you). As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. For more information, visit my legal page.
Joan is a practicing ICU physician, so her entire existence centers around her work at the hospital. For years her studies and her work have supplanted family, leaving her somewhat estranged from her parents and her older brother. Even so, when her father suddenly dies, she hops on the first plane to China for a two-day trip to pay her respects.
When she returns to New York, she’s left with many unsettled emotions, so, naturally, she throws herself into her practice. The less time she spends at her pre-war apartment the better. No one, let alone her Director, can believe that she’s back in the ICU rounding after only two days off. Is she ok? Joan’s always seemed a little strange, or, at the very least, difficult to relate to at times. But her lack of emotion after such a tragic loss seems bizarre even for her.
But when HR learns that she hasn’t had a week off in several months, they enforce a mandatory six-week leave of absence, forcing Joan from the only “home” she really knows. In the absence of work, Joan spends her time trying to navigate the new landscape of “home.” Though she lives alone, her new neighbor is encroaching on her space day by day. He’s turned her apartment into a replica of his, complete with a TV she can’t stop watching and books she’ll probably never read. If she’s not trying to avoid him, she’s dodging her brother’s calls, texts, and party invitations. The only person she isn’t avoiding is her mother, whose sudden arrival in the US has somehow changed their mother/daughter dynamic. When did they start “chatting?”
Without work to define her, Joan’s struggling to understand who she is now. Daughter, sister, friend… somehow it always comes back around to Doctor. As an intensivist, she’s in charge of “the formula,” the series of steps taken to save a life. And though she can perform life-saving measures with precision, the rest of her life seems out of control. Now she must find a way to distract herself from her feelings, her loss, her eccentric neighbor, her brother, and, most of all, herself.
This lovely book is a complex web of thoughts and feelings about family, belonging, ethnicity and migration. Other words that come to mind when I finished: a marvel, meaningful, poetic, evocative, existential, realistic. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything this poignant and thought-provoking. Joan is a stand-in for so many young professionals, myself included. We’re trying to juggle it all (aging parents, career vs family, work/life balance) while maintaining some semblance of selfhood.
Joan is Okay reads like a stream of consciousness at times, giving you a glimpse into the inner world of the character in a way that few books do. The internal quips are sarcastic and sharp, making for the occasional LOL moment. And the MC’s slightly offbeat way of communicating creates a palpable tension in what might otherwise be mundane interactions. What should be a “normal” trip to the trash can turns into a pivotal moment in the plot; leave it to Joan to make taking out the trash seem interesting. Wang proves over and over that there is beauty in the mundane.
One of the greatest challenges I faced with this book was the lack of quotation marks. Initially, I found it difficult to follow, but, in time, the dialogue began to stand out even without the punctuation. In fact, the dialogue became the buried treasure in many ways, as each of the conversations felt pivotal and insightful. After a while, the unorthodox writing style matched the equally unorthodox characters and storytelling perfectly.
In addition, Wang’s new book also captures a critical moment of our time in a way that’s simply stunning. The discovery and global spread of COVID-19 is the parallel storyline throughout the novel. The reader watches the developing crisis through the eyes of not only a physician but also a Chinese American. Joan’s anxiety, already at an all-time high, is heightened by the need for constant vigilance. Attacks on Asian Americans have started to occur, leaving her vulnerable in a city that’s always felt safe. She feels more American than Asian, but, like so many other Asian Pacific Islanders, her ethnicity has made her a target for other people’s fear and rage.
Joan is Okay is a marvel. It’s got all the makings of an unforgettable novel, one I know I’ll be reflecting on for a long time to come. It was a challenge at first, but one I’m glad I stuck with, as this was one of the most worthwhile non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. Don’t sleep on this one friend! Thank you @Netgalley and Random House for this e-Arc in exchange for my honest opinion!