It’s Thursday! Today I have a review for What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan and published in July by Little, Brown. It has received high praise over on Bookstagram, and I could not wait to read the story of the Zhen family.

My Thoughts:

In What We Were Promised, the opening prologue includes the Zhen family leaving China to move to the United States. When life does not turn out the way they had expected financially, they return to Shanghai several years later. 

Next, we meet Sunny, a housekeeper working in a lavish high rise apartment in Shanghai. Immediately apparent are the class differences as a result of her occupation, as well as her home background. 

Years later, the Zhen family moves back to China, where their money goes further, and Lina, the wife, no longer has to work. They make their home in the fancy Lanson Suites in Shanghai where they hire a housekeeper and nanny companion for their teen daughter. The nanny they hire is Sunny. 

Wei, the husband and father, begins to doubt his status as a marketing strategist and wishes he had chosen something more prestigious. At the same time, Lina is now lonely and bored without a job to keep her busy. Qiang, Wei’s brother, mysteriously comes to visit, and there is an uncomfortable feeling both from Wei and Lina, with Sunny observing it all. Qiang has been on the lam for years and is associated with some dark activity, which forces Wei and Lina to confront the past, as much as they have tried to bury it. This is a novel of family and explores topics such as the appropriateness of arranged marriage, the necessity of love in marriage, and money and its role in happiness. 

Overall, I found What We Were Promised to be a thought-provoking and beautifully written novel about cultural and familial expectations, and how those same expectations can unknowingly shape our lives. It is also a parable on those who have it all versus those who must work hard in order to have, and of course the lesson of just who is happier. 

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for the ARC. All opinions are my own. 


After years of chasing the American dream, the Zhen family has moved back to China. Settling into a luxurious serviced apartment in Shanghai, Wei, Lina, and their daughter, Karen, join an elite community of Chinese-born, Western-educated professionals who have returned to a radically transformed city.

One morning, in the eighth tower of Lanson Suites, Lina discovers that a childhood keepsake, an ivory bracelet, has gone missing. The incident contributes to a wave of unease that has begun to settle throughout the Zhen household. Wei, a marketing strategist, bows under the guilt of not having engaged in nobler work. Meanwhile, Lina, lonely in her new life of leisure, assumes the modern moniker taitai–a housewife who does no housework at all. She spends her days haunted by the circumstances surrounding her arranged marriage to Wei and her lingering feelings for his brother, Qiang. Lina and Wei take pains to hide their anxieties, but their housekeeper, Sunny, a hardworking girl with secrets of her own, bears witness to their struggles. When Qiang reappears in Shanghai after decades on the run with a local gang, the family must finally come to terms with the past.

From a silk-producing village in rural China, up the corporate ladder in suburban America, and back again to the post-Maoist nouveau riche of modern Shanghai, WHAT WE WERE PROMISED explores the question of what we owe to our country, our families, and ourselves.

Have you read What We Were Promised, or do you plan to? Have you read any great books lately involving a different culture than your own? Happy Reading! ~ Jennifer THR