Kathy Wang’s debut novel “Family Trust” consists mostly of financial minutiae and organ failure. The novel is not, at first glance, a light read. Topically, “Family Trust” traces the fight over a controversial will; thematically, the pun in the title (“trust” as in finance, “trust” as in faith) gives a good indication of its subjects. When the slow, excruciating death of a father is your book’s comic relief, then you have a very serious book — and still, somehow, Wang has written a debut novel that is sharp, considerate, and endlessly engaging.
“Family Trust” begins (and later ends) with Stanley Huang, the book’s temperamental patriarch. Within a few pages, the reader learns that Stanley is dying of pancreatic cancer, and the following book centers around his death and — much more contentiously — his will. In the running to receive Stanley’s supposed millions are his ex-wife (the comically dry Linda), his son (Fred, an aspiring venture capitalist), his daughter (Kate, the perpetual caretaker), and his current wife (the young, bland Mary). With the cast thus set, chaos ensues. There’s adultery, the collapse of several marriages, and the destruction of a major financial scheme — all culminating in a remarkably effective, throw-the-book-across-the-room kind of plot twist.
The most important thing to understand about “Family Trust,” however, is that it is primarily a book about money. Wang herself is a Harvard Business School alum, and the novel highlights both general business and the HBS landscape (the Cambridge pizza icon Pinocchio’s gets a shoutout on page 10). The text’s focus on finance is relentless. At every emotional, climactic moment, a character, usually Linda, can be counted on to break the tension with a thought about mortgages. “Family Trust”’s big moral conclusion is a scene in which Linda decides to go outside and enjoy the sunshine — and even that level of sentimentality feels out of place. “There is a deal between every couple, though it isn’t between husband and wife,” a minor character tells Kate. “It is between who has the money and who doesn’t.”
At times then, “Family Trust” can be hard to warm up to. Characters are rarely open and almost never nice. Kate, usually the most sympathetic of the bunch, also has less of Linda or Fred’s comedic bite. Stanley, the least sympathetic, is probably the funniest (“Your father’s a fool,” Linda says to her children, and she’s right). Wang is more likely to humiliate her characters than to humanize them — in any other book, her graphic descriptions of Stanley’s death would feel brutal. The scene where it becomes clear that Stanley needs adult diapers, for example, lies somewhere in between horrifying and heartbreaking. But even when Wang details her characters’ failings at length, and even when those failings are serious or sad, its constant interest in money is what saves “Family Trust.” After all, upon realizing that Stanley can no longer make it to the bathroom, Mary observes only that “it was too late for him to sign anything else over or fix his past financial mistakes.”
This is not to say that “Family Trust” is heartless. Wang is not synonymous with her characters, and she makes a good faith effort to — as the book’s inside flap puts it — “skewer the ambition and desires that drive Silicon Valley.” If Wang’s cynicism makes her characters feel cold, then it also offers a lively commentary on the tech world. Kate, for example, is a victim of sexual violence (her world is “filled with violent, thin-skinned men”), while Fred is something of a perpetrator. Wang’s sympathetic juxtaposition of the two is jarring: After Kate is harmed, she uses the event to catapult her career, while after Fred gets accused, his career is temporarily over. Both of them, however, are somewhat unlikeable, and it’s unclear which — if either — is supposed to be more sympathetic.
Racial discrimination, too, is frequently the subject of Wang’s dark and ambiguous humor. “Can the company definitively state it is not deliberately limiting Asian and Indian hires in order to meet certain diversity standards?” Fred asks a human resources worker in a job interview. “We are committed as a company to the concept — the concept of equality,” the worker stammers in reply. In both cases — that is, in Wang’s treatment of race and her treatment of gender — her characters’ sheer unlikability mutes. Nevertheless, the commentary is ever-present, and Wang’s snark keeps her politics from becoming heavy-handed.
To her enormous credit, Wang also holds very little space for stereotypes. Although her characters are all, in a generic sense, bad people, Wang never allows them to devolve into the banal. Men and women alike are gold diggers; Asian Americans and white people are both abusive; the old and the young are equally out of touch. This is “Family Trust”’s modus operandi — it is cynical and biting, but the moral compass behind the humor feels honest.
Linda, so often the bitterest character, is also the best example of the novel’s underlying good nature. When, towards the book’s end, she is placed in danger, the amount of pathos injected into the novel is almost startling. Linda, however, is doggedly stoic. “Life is very difficult,” Mary says to Linda in one of the book’s final scenes. “I never knew how terrible it could be.”
“Life is about solving problems,” Linda replies. “If you cannot respect this, then I have nothing more to say to you.” The line is “Family Trust” all over. Wang’s debut is undeniably harsh and edgy — but it is also clever and, in a pecuniary way, enormously big hearted.
— Staff writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at email@example.com