by Weike Wang
This wasn’t quite what I was expecting. What I was expecting from JOAN IS OKAY was something along the lines of ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE. Both are about misfit women. (And both women are either OK or completely fine.) But ELEANOR is played for laughs and sentimentality, while JOAN was completely serious and refused to follow any predictable narrative arc.
Joan is an ICU doctor who lives inside her work. She enjoys nothing more than being a cog in a machine. She has odd, not-exactly-close yet not-really-distant relationships with her mother and her older brother, and likewise had with her father, whose death back in China opens the novel. Her relationships with her co-workers are also not cold or distant or weird, but odd, in a matter-of-fact kind of way.
Joan gets a new neighbor across the hall who infiltrates her life in a frankly creepy-friendly way. He gives her food, objects, furniture. As this guy noses in more and more, his furniture filling her previously spartan living space, one would be forgiven for thinking: ah, now here is where the fun young guy shows Joan, one piece of furniture at a time, how to live, laugh, and love! But, no. It is not that kind of book at all.
The author is not a medical doctor, but she is a chemist with a doctorate in public health. It’s always so refreshing to read about characters who are in STEM. Writers only ever seem to write about other writers, usually thinly disguised as “artists.” (I always imagine them thinking, “It’ll be way too obvious I’m writing about myself if I make her a writer… I know! I’ve got it, she’ll be an artist.” Right, they’ll never suspect.)