Review: Joan is Okay (Weike Wang)

Workaholic doctor Joan, the titular character, takes us to China to begin things in Joan is Okay. Her father has died, and she muses as she meets relatives she has not seen for over a decade, that here, in China, she is seen as an American. Not much for her to do in a strange place full of strangers to her, so she flies back to the US, where her Chinese-American heritage marks her as Chinese.

Joan resumes her duties as attending physician in the ICU. We see her interaction with workmates Madeline and Reece, and her inner self tells us she prefers the world of the medical ICU, with its machines and beeps and codes, to the other ICUs (surgical, for instance, where the doctors’ handwriting is worse than any other, according to Joan).

There came a point where I wondered if Joan’s reticence and focus was a byproduct of Asperger’s syndrome, or if it was simply a byproduct of a solitary, introverted child who became a solitary, introverted adult. I don’t think it matters all that much: Joan is intelligent, sometimes witty, and often wryly observant, and that makes the book a good read.

The doorman of her apartment building takes a shine to her, asking about her health, her love life; later, when a resident moves in across the hall, he asks if she has fallen in love with Mark the neighbor yet. I found this rather creepy, to be honest.

Mark, for his part, increasingly invades her life, and sad to say, she lets him do it: as he acquires new stuff, he gives her his old stuff. Books he’s read, a tv, furniture. This culminates into a party in her apartment at New Year’s, Mark having set the entire thing up using the spare key she’d given to him. I found this also to be rather creepy as well as annoying, and in the end, so does Joan. Her passivity finally gives way, and after fleeing the party to her brother’s place in CT (where her mother is also staying for an extended visit), she returns and installs a deadbolt on her door. Good call, Joan!

There are brief breaks in the narrative where Joan explains written Chinese and what symbols are combined to mean what words. At the first one, I was a bit confused, but as they popped up here and there, I realized that Joan is explaining to us some of the things she might be feeling if she were NotJoan (who might not be quite as reserved as Joan is), and they also serve as respites from some of the heavier moments in the story.

I expect anything published from the end of this year moving forward to have something in it about COVID, and this is no different, especially since Joan is a doctor: the beginnings of rumbles come at the end of the book, eventually turning into the flood of patients we’ve all seen and read about. Joan herself, and her two workmates, come down with it. She survives, returns to work, and deals with the brutal reality of having to help patients talk to their loved ones via tablet. There’s a memorable scene with Earl, one of her patients, and it’s both heartening – he is giving his wife the things she will need if he dies – and dreadful, because we know in those early days, the odds were not good, just as they are not now in certain circumstances.

Joan, however, knows herself and her place. And Joan is okay.

4.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up. Recommended. I read it in one sitting, today.

Thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the reading copy.