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Joan Is Okay: A Novel

Joan Is Okay: A Novel

by Weike Wang

Narrated by Catherine Ho

Unabridged — 6 hours, 36 minutes

Weike Wang

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NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS' CHOICE ¿ A witty, moving, piercingly insightful new novel about a marvelously complicated woman who can't be anyone but herself, from the award-winning author of Chemistry

“A deeply felt portrait . . . With gimlet-eyed observation laced with darkly biting wit, Weike Wang masterfully probes the existential uncertainty of being other in America.”-Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere

Joan is a thirtysomething ICU doctor at a busy New York City hospital. The daughter of Chinese parents who came to the United States to secure the American dream for their children, Joan is intensely devoted to her work, happily solitary, successful. She does look up sometimes and wonder where her true roots lie: at the hospital, where her white coat makes her feel needed, or with her family, who try to shape her life by their own cultural and social expectations.
Once Joan and her brother, Fang, were established in their careers, her parents moved back to China, hoping to spend the rest of their lives in their homeland. But when Joan's father suddenly dies and her mother returns to America to reconnect with her children, a series of events sends Joan spiraling out of her comfort zone just as her hospital, her city, and the world are forced to reckon with a health crisis more devastating than anyone could have imagined.
Deceptively spare yet quietly powerful, laced with sharp humor, Joan Is Okay touches on matters that feel deeply resonant: being Chinese-American right now; working in medicine at a high-stakes time; finding one's voice within a dominant culture; being a woman in a male-dominated workplace; and staying independent within a tight-knit family. But above all, it's a portrait of one remarkable woman so surprising that you can't get her out of your head.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Audio


Joan is a Chinese American doctor who is focused on her work in the ICU of a New York City hospital and has little in the way of a social life. Her brother Fang is a successful hedge fund manager who lives in posh Greenwich, CT, with his wife and three children. When their father dies unexpectedly, Joan requests only 48 hours' leave to attend his funeral in China. This triggers an HR intervention requiring Joan to take a six-week leave from the hospital. An overfriendly neighbor teaches Joan how to fill her down time, but these lessons cause Joan to flee to Greenwich. The close proximity of family precipitates a number of conversations that help Joan clarify what she wants. Wang (PEN/Hemingway—awarded for her debut novel Chemistry, and with a PhD in public health) offers a compelling story and gentle exploration of immigration, success, and lifestyle choices. Narrator Catherine Ho is just the right voice for Joan. She navigates the English and Chinese parts of the story with ease and voices the conflicting opportunities and choices each character faces with compassion and humor. VERDICT Highly recommended.—Joanna M. Burkhardt

Publishers Weekly


Wang’s profound latest (after Chemistry) portrays two generations of a grieving Asian American family. Joan, a 36-year-old self-possessed physician, works long hours at her Manhattan hospital’s ICU and lives alone in a sparsely decorated apartment despite the insistence of her well-to-do brother, Fang, that she move to Connecticut to be closer to him and his family. But when their father, who has lived in Shanghai with their mother ever since Joan went to college, dies after a stroke, Joan begins to feel unmoored. Their mother then returns to the U.S. after 18 years, only to be stranded in Connecticut due to the pandemic travel bans. Because of language barriers, her old age, and lack of a driver’s license, she depends on her children to get around and to communicate. Wang offers candid explorations of family dynamics (“berating is love, and here I was at thirty-six, still being loved,” Joan reflects after Fang shames her for not going with him and their mother on a fancy Colorado skiing trip), and Joan’s empathy for her ailing patients, as well as her disapproving brother and sister in law, are consistently refreshing. It adds up to a tender and enduring portrayal of the difficulties of forging one’s own path after spending a life between cultures. Agent: Joy Harris, Joy Harris Literary. (Jan.)

From the Publisher

Incisive yet tender, written with elegant style and delicious verve. Joan isn’t just okay, she’s wonderful. I could listen to her smart, witty voice forever.”—Sigrid Nunez

“Joan . . . is solitary, literal-minded and extremely awkward—all of which contribute to the hilarity of this novel.New York Times

“A wry, wise, and simply spectacular book.”People (“Book of the Week”)

“A smart, powerful, and very contemporary read that touches on the struggles shaping the very world we live in today.”Town & Country

“The uncomfortable humor and weird politics of family are front and center . . . all delivered with surprisingly caustic wit.”Esquire

“Unflinchingly, Joan Is Okay challenges some of our fundamental views on home, belonging, family. A smart, quietly engaging novel that is also warm and moving.”—Ha Jin

“Wang has created a compelling character, utterly distinct, and the novel is carried by her dispassionate, clear-eyed, and often drily amusing narration. [The book’s] powerful insights will resonate with many.”—Claire Messud, Harper’s

“Wang takes us into the heart of the matter: death, dysfunction, xenophobia, misogyny, and the chronic misapprehension that passes between people of good intentions. The miracle that emerges, then, is just how funny this book is, how compassionate and visionary.”—Joshua Ferris

“I am staggered by Wang’s humor, heart, and brilliance. I loved Joan and I am pressing this book into your hands.”—Lily King

“This is an Asian American novel like no other, set in the heart of the pandemic, in the city I call home. Joan is my hero.”—Ed Park 

“Full of sly wit, off-kilter observations, and misanthropic poetry. Readers will find in Joan a kindred soul.”—Lillian Li

“Joan is the perfect guide for our troubled times. I was left circling sentence after sentence.”—Heidi Pitlor

“Joan is a character I will be thinking about for a long time to come. I could not put this book down.”—Angie Kim

“Brilliant, precise, excruciatingly funny . . . Joan wins your deepest admiration at the same time as her vulnerability breaks your heart.”—Lara Vapnyar 

“Joan’s voice and world view are hard to shake, and Wang’s writing is immensely rewarding and enjoyable.”—Charles Yu

“Scathingly witty . . . Wang is wonderful at understated sadness presented without a twinge of self-pity.”—Jim Shepard

“Brilliant, subtly powerful, and different—in the best way.”—Rachel Khong

Joan Is Okay charts the internal story of the mythic immigrant success narrative in a tragicomedy about the costs of generational betterment.”—Mona Simpson

“A tender and enduring portrayal of the difficulties of forging one’s own path after spending a life between cultures.”—Publishers Weekly

“Joan is such an idiosyncratic character, and Wang’s style so wry and piercing, that the novel is its own category . . . As one of a kind as its memorable main character.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Insightful and hopeful.”BookRiot

Library Journal


Wang's second novel (after Chemistry) is by turns touching, funny, observant, and thoughtful. The title character is a Chinese American attending physician at a New York City hospital, where she's always willing to pick up extra shifts rather than face the confusing chaos of family obligations and other social activities. A math whiz and assiduous chronicler of vital signs, she works better with machines than with people and doesn't always pick up on social cues. Is Joan OK? All around her are people who want to help. Her pushy new neighbor loads her down with cast-off possessions; her wealthy brother Fang and his wife berate her for blowing off the lavish parties at their mansion in Connecticut; even her doorman tells her how to stand in the elevator. Then her father, who moved back to China with her mother when Joan and Fang were grown, dies suddenly. Joan makes a 48-hour trip to China for the funeral, confounding her coworkers. Her mother comes to Connecticut and is unable to return when the pandemic hits, accompanied by a wave of anti-Asian hostility and fear. VERDICT Though the book ends abruptly, readers will enjoy spending time with Wang's offbeat protagonist who straddles two cultures and tries to find her place in the world.—Liz French

Kirkus Reviews

The loss of her father forces a young doctor to confront her past and present.

By most people’s estimation, Joan is more than OK: In her mid-30s, she’s an attending physician in the intensive care unit of a Manhattan hospital. She’s such a dedicated doctor that when her father dies, she flies to China for the funeral and back in a single weekend. (She's puzzled by other characters’ objections to feeling like cogs in a machine at their jobs: “Cogs were essential and an experience that anyone could enjoy,” she muses.) The hospital director is so impressed with her that he’s wooing her to stay with an impressive salary and perks. But she's also different from just about everyone she knows. Straightforward, literal, utilitarian Joan is a puzzle to her wealthy brother, Fang; to her widowed mother, who doesn’t understand why she doesn’t enjoy womanly pastimes like shopping or jewelry; to her new neighbor, Mark, a bachelor trying to figure out how to get beyond her stoic exterior; to her colleague Reese, who feels he may be in the wrong field because he can't keep up with her work ethic. When HR forces Joan on a bereavement break, she's finally left to process her father’s loss and her roles as the child of immigrants, a career woman, and an Asian American. In the wrong hands, Joan’s story could have been a rom-com with familiar contours or a heavy existential drama. But Joan is such an idiosyncratic character, and Wang’s style so wry and piercing, that the novel is its own category: a character study about otherness set partly against the backdrop of early-pandemic anti-Asian sentiment that manages to be both profound and witty.

A novel as one of a kind as its memorable main character.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940176101058
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 03/12/2022
Edition description: Unabridged

Read an Excerpt

When I think about people, I think about space, how much space a person takes up and how much use that person provides. I am just under five feet tall and just under a hundred pounds. Briefly I thought I would exceed five feet, and while that would’ve been fine, I also didn’t need the extra height. To stay just under something gives me a sense of comfort, as when it rains and I can open an umbrella over my head.

Today someone said that I looked like a mouse. Five six and 290 pounds, he, in a backless gown with nonslip tube socks, said that my looking like a mouse made him wary. He asked how old I was. What schools had I gone to, and were they prestigious? Then where were my degrees from these prestigious schools?

My degrees are large and framed, I said. I don’t carry them around.

While not a mouse, I do have prosaic features. My eyes, hooded and lashless. I have very thin eyebrows.

I told the man that he could try another hospital or come back at another time. But high chance that I would still be here and he would still think that I looked like a mouse.

I read somewhere that empathy is repeating the last three words of a sentence and nodding your head.

My twenties were spent in school, and a girl in her twenties is said to be in her prime. After that decade, all is lost. They must mean looks, because what could a female brain be worth, and how long could one last?

Being in school often felt like a race. I was told to grab time and if I didn’t—that is, reach out the window and pull time in like a messenger dove—someone else in another car would. The road was full of cars, limousines, and Priuses, but there were a limited number of doves. With this image in mind, I can no longer ride in a vehicle with the windows down. Inevitably I will look for the dove and offer my hand out to be cut off.

My father’s stroke was fatal, having followed the natural course of a stroke of that magnitude to its predictable end. Usually people die from complications and I was grateful he hadn’t. Complications would’ve angered him, actually, to have died not from a single blow but from a total system shutdown, which was slower, more painful, and revealed just how vulnerable a person could be. Months prior, he had complained of headaches and eye pressure. I told him to get some tests done and he said that he would, which meant he wouldn’t. In China, my father ran a construction company that, in the last decade, had finally seen success. He was a typical workaholic and for most of my childhood, adolescence, adulthood, not often around.

When I got the news, I was in my office at the hospital, at work. My father had tripped over a bundle of projector cords during a meeting and bounced his head off a chair. As my mother was explaining—either the fall triggered the stroke or the stroke triggered the fall—I asked her to put the phone next to his ear. He was already unconscious, but hearing is the last sense to go. Given the time difference on my side, only morning in Manhattan since I was twelve hours behind, my father was still en route to the meeting that by my mother’s accounts was meant to be ordinary.

I asked my father how his drive was going and if he could, just for today, take a few hours off. He obviously didn’t reply, but I said either way this went, I was proud of him. He had never planned to retire and remained, until the very end, doing what he loved.

Chuàng, I said into the phone, and raised my fist into the air.

After my mother hung up, I sat there for a while, not facing the computer, and that was my mistake.

Having seen my fist go up, the two other doctors in the office asked whom I’d been talking to and what was that strange sound I just made. I said my father and that the sound was closer to a word but the word meant nothing.

My colleagues didn’t know I spoke Chinese, and I wanted to keep it that way to avoid any confusion. But the word did mean something, it had many different definitions, one of which was “to begin.”

It was late September, and my female colleague Madeline was teasing my male colleague Reese about summer, which was his favorite season so he was sad to see it go.

Only little girls like summers, Madeline said to Reese, little girls in flower crowns and paisley dresses.

Reese was a six-­two, 190-­pound all-­American guy who went on casual dates with lots of women but flirted with only Madeline at work. I’m madly in love with you, he would say to her, in front of other colleagues like me, and Madeline would either ignore him completely or relentlessly try to get him back. Madeline was a five-­seven, 139-­pound robust German woman with a slight accent. She has had the same software engineer boyfriend for seven years, and they lived in an apartment with lots of plants.

What’s wrong? Madeline asked, sensing that I had been turned away from my monitor for too long.

I asked if one of them could cover my weekend shift. I apologized for the short notice, but I had to leave.

Both were happy to do it and even commended my request, since like my father I was a workaholic and known to never take time off. They asked where I was going and I said China, but just for the weekend. Then I turned from them and started packing up my things.

Fine, don’t tell us, said Reese.

I know what it is, Madeline said with a mischievous glint. You’re off to get married. You’re going to elope.

Elope is a funny word and, in hospital-­speak for patients, meant “to leave the building at the risk of yourself and without a doctor’s consent.”

After I mentioned my father’s passing, Madeline gasped, covering her mouth and, for a second, shutting her eyes. Through her fingers, she asked if that had been my last conversation with him, and the sound I made, was it, then, a sound of grief?

I said, No, not really, and left it at that.

Reese and Madeline asked me a few more questions, like when I last saw him, and how long has it been since I left China?

You were born there, no? Reese asked, and I said I was born in the Bay Area.

California, Madeline said. A great place to be born.

But Oakland, I said, to not seem like I was giving my birthplace too much credit.

Right, Reese said.

Still, Madeline said.

I told them that the last time I saw my father was in spring. He had been in New York for business, a possible opportunity here, a new client, and, on his way back to JFK, drove past the hospital and met me in its first-­floor atrium that had fake greenery and a small café. He bought me a cup of coffee and I was almost done with it when he had to leave and catch his flight. But to China, I rarely went, nor did I consider myself too Chinese.

The moment those words left my mouth, I wondered why I had said them. What was wrong with being too Chinese? Yet it’d always seemed that something was.

I felt a draft but that was impossible. Our shared office was a windowless room with a dozen desks lined up against the walls and a refreshments station in the back. The door opened to a hall that had no open windows and was used only to transport equipment. A folded-­up wheelchair, an empty bed, pushed by hunched-­over techs.

Madeline asked if I wanted some gum and it seemed we all did, so we passed the gum packet around and discussed the fresh minty flavor. She asked if I wanted the rest of the pack, international flights were long. How long exactly?

I said sixteen hours, to which Reese replied shit.

I was surprised that neither asked where in China I was going. The country was huge and much of it rural. Google Maps didn’t work there. But there were only two cities most people knew about, and I was going not to the capital but the other one by the sea.

Customer Reviews