In this thick, satisfying sprawl of a read, the remarkable short-story writer Gish Jen (Who's Irish?) explores the idea of community. She sets her long-awaited novel World and Town in an idyllic New England town, the kind of place we like to carelessly fetishize as the real America. At the center is 68-year-old Hattie Kong, a descendant of Confucius who's still reeling from the back-to-back deaths of her husband and her best friend. Her life, flattened by grief, is shaken up when a former lover moves to town and a family of Cambodian immigrants takes up in the trailer down the hill. Everybody in these pages, it seems, is in desperate need of a fresh start and a sense of belonging.
It's into this mix that Jen gracefully introduces some of the great issues of our time: how the shock of 9/11 reverberated from city to town; how lost souls can cling meanly to fundamentalism; how it feels when a chain store bulldozes into a mom-and-pop community, or a family farm finally collapses.
The novel's main flaw is that Jen devotes too much time to Hattie's tedious relationship with her ex. But when she slides into the voice of a 15-year-old Cambodian girl, or the bitter old-timer angry over the loss of his farm and wife, World and Town practically sings. B+