Cai’s protagonist, Audrey Zhou, a small-town valedictorian now living in New York, brings Ben, her White, Upper-Manhattan-bred fiance, home for the holidays — to Hickory Grove, a town of 1,300 in sleepy central Illinois. The book begins with the awkward pageantry of meeting the parents. Audrey quickly burns herself out trying to make sure that Ben is comfortable and that her disapproving mother and suspiciously good-natured father do not scare away the man of her dreams. The visit spirals into a series of mishaps that make her question whether she is ready for marriage at all. Unwilling or unable to allay Audrey’s fears, Ben, a photojournalist, flies off to California to document wildfires that have begun making headlines, leaving Audrey alone to rekindle her feelings for her high school locker-mate, a biracial boy named Kyle Weber, and to wander Hickory Grove like a ghost. Stuck at a crossroads, Audrey realizes that she can either accept the life promised by her fiance, insulated in Williamsburg with their matcha lattes and $20 hummus plates, or carve a path back to the nostalgic landscape of cornfields, churches and malls where she grew up.
As we come to learn, people in Hickory Grove attribute Audrey’s success in New York to her sharp focus and cutthroat ambition, and throughout her stay she is made to feel guilty and ashamed of the fruits of that ambition. “You were sort of terrifying in school,” says Kyle. “You were so serious all the time.” While this premise easily resembles that of movies such as “Sweet Home Alabama” and the holiday fling described in Taylor Swift’s “’Tis the Damn Season,” Cai’s novel takes a different approach toward the city-girl-country-boy trope. With prose that flies at a breakneck speed, “Central Places” digs deeper than the average romantic comedy into the social anxieties that underlie the characters who populate such stories: the insecure Type A heroine, the blissfully oblivious child of privilege and the laid-back small-town stoner. Cai, a correspondent for Vanity Fair, accomplishes this in part through the vacillating tone of Audrey’s narration, which swings wildly between hypervigilant repulsion — toward both the rural and the Chinese American aspects of her past — and self-sabotaging melancholia. Despite or because of her guilt and shame, Audrey becomes increasingly tempted, as Kundera would say, to plunge back into the charms of the town she fought tooth and nail to escape.
I read Cai’s novel in late 2022, at a time when the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority was pushing to overturn affirmative action at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Conversations around the hearings revealed, once again, the extent to which the deeply troubling model-minority myth has shaped Asian Americans’ notions of assimilation, achievement and class mobility. In many ways, Audrey’s predicament cuts to the core of these national conversations. According to her mother — one of the novel’s most complicated and richly observed characters — the credo of ambition is not only justified but also hardly negotiable, and none of what Audrey has accomplished in her 27 years seems satisfactory. It is also the case, however, that Audrey’s self-sufficiency and success have distanced her from her former peers. Seen through this lens, both Kyle’s offhand remarks and the town’s perception of one of its only Asian American locals carry an unsettling subtext.
The now-historical context of the novel’s narrative adds another layer to these dynamics. Set in 2017, “Central Places” reads like a time capsule, a snapshot of the U.S. political climate at a point of transition. Beneath the love triangle and the small-town drama, the characters Cai depicts are collectively reeling from the 2016 election. Audrey’s friends in New York are kicking themselves as they try to pinpoint “what everyone had gotten wrong about the people from places like Hickory Grove.” Meanwhile, racists in Hickory Grove, such as those Audrey encounters at a bar over the holidays, have become empowered enough to throw slurs at her and Kyle, just as the pair is about to confess their feelings for one another.
Over the course of the novel, we come to recognize the alienation Audrey now faces in her hometown. She has been gone for eight years and, as a result, missed weddings, funerals and reunions, even as the country changed irrevocably. That Audrey might choose to continue insulating herself in her Williamsburg bubble seems just as much a matter of self-protection as of pride. Those who never left Hickory Grove, however, don’t see it that way. They consider Audrey’s escape from the Midwest an evasion of political responsibility. “Last fall, three kids overdosed,” her former best friend, Kristen, tells her. “A bunch of people’s parents lost jobs when Caterpillar moved that big plant after the strike. … You weren’t even here during the election. You haven’t seen what it’s like.”
The question at the heart of Cai’s quarter-life-crisis novel is this: What do people like Audrey owe the small towns where they grew up, the towns that made them feel alone and misunderstood but that, for what it’s worth, took their ambitions seriously? Could someone who has built a life and identity like Audrey’s in New York survive if plunged back into a community of 1,300 in 2017, not to mention in pandemic-addled 2023? What would this form of survival look like, and what would it offer to those who exemplify the problems of “places like Hickory Grove”?
As Audrey considers surrendering to vertigo, returning to the Midwest to care for her aging parents and falling back into the arms of her high school crush, these questions take on an ethical urgency. Cai unpacks each layer of complexity with intelligence and sensitivity. In doing so, she paints a sobering portrait of small-town America, not as a place the ambitious and conscientious must flee but as a site of reckoning — between past and present, stereotype and reality, and the differences between those who call it home.
Jenny Wu is a fiction writer, critic and independent curator.
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