A Wacky Mosaic of Teenage Self-Discovery

Mona in the Promised Land

By Gish Jen

Alfred A. Knopf

304 pp., $24

The bare-bones plot of Gish Jen's novel "Mona in the Promised Land," could have been written by a Benetton copywriter. Chinese girl in New York works in the family's pancake house; gets mad crush on a Japanese boy; becomes Jewish; volunteers on a suicide hot line; hangs out with her boyfriend in a tepee; and falls in with a low-life black crowd.

Are any groups left out?

Oh, yes - WASPs. Mona makes friends with one whose father pulls a fast one that gets the father of another friend of Mona's fired.

It's complicated, but funny.

Mona, Jen's narrator and perhaps alter ego, is a smart girl with a smart mouth, out of which comes an interesting montage of Chinese, Jewish, black, and Anglo phrases.

What Mona is trying to do is make some sense of this odd American world she lives in and her role in it.

Listen to her take on how Americans view color: "If [her friend Naomi] were a cabinet door or a shade of hair dye, people would have a name for her exact shade. But as she is only a person, she is called black, just as Mona ...[is] called yellow."

But "Mona" is far from being a serious tract on race relations or immigrants' adjustment. Jen will also do a riff on, say, iceberg lettuce: "Mona finds that she too is having trouble taking iceberg lettuce seriously as a food item. More and more it looks to her like someone's failed agricultural experiment, or like the inside of something else, the zip-out lining of a raincoat trying to pass on its own."

Or when Bea, her boyfriend's stepmother, says of him: "You watch, he'll end up on the straight and narrow yet. It's the talented ones you have to worry about. Especially the ones who can sing, or play something - with them you have to worry about rock bands. Seth, luckily, has no talents. That leaves law school."

It seems as if most of the people in "Mona and the Promised Land" are trying to find themselves, except Mona's parents. Mona tries a lot of things before settling on a comfortable sense of identity that embraces the many disparate elements in her life.

Though in the end she doesn't turn out to be the good Chinese girl her parents want her to be, neither does she convert to Judaism. She is her own melting pot, her own mosaic, and someone whose life it is satisfying to join for a bit.

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