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Susie Luo’s ‘Paper Names’ explores what it means to be an American

Susie Luo's new book is titled "Paper Names"
Matt Stokes
Susie Luo's new book is titled "Paper Names"

As “Paper Names” opens, we meet Tony Zhang, a Chinese immigrant who works as a doorman in an upscale Manhattan apartment building. A heroic episode puts Tony in the spotlight, where he crosses paths with Oliver, a handsome young lawyer who is hiding a dark family history. Eventually, Oliver meets Tony’s daughter, Tammy, a 9-year-old dealing with her father’s fiery temper along with her own desire to succeed as a first-generation American.

And that’s the trio at the center of this book, which Susie Luo wrote at night while working as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. It’s an ambitious and sweeping debut, tackling themes such as anti-Asian racism, cultural differences, family dynamics, and the American dream.

Tony works his way into a job that gives his family the kind of suburban life he thinks they deserve. Oliver enjoys the trappings of white-collar wealth, but he can’t manage to reconcile it with his ancestors’ ethical failings. And Tammy grows from a headstrong child to a Harvard-educated lawyer. The story is sometimes disorienting as it weaves back and forth through time – set in New York and China over three decades. But the author propels it along with realistic dialogue and enough plot twists to keep you guessing.

“Paper Names” builds to a dramatic, if somewhat unbelievable, climax. But again, Luo’s characters and writing kept me reading through to the end. I especially enjoyed following Tammy as she learns to appreciate her father’s devotion to his family. Overall, an engaging debut.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.