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Real Americans by Rachel Khong
Literary fiction

Real Americans

Repeat author

Rachel Khong is back at Book of the Month – other BOTMs include Goodbye, Vitamin.

by Rachel Khong

Excellent choice

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Quick take

Epic and immersive, this big-hearted family saga tackles important questions of inheritance, destiny, and forgiveness.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_MultipleNarrators

    Multiple viewpoints

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_FamilyDrama

    Family drama

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_NonLinear

    Nonlinear timeline

Synopsis

Real Americans begins on the precipice of Y2K in New York City, when twenty-two-year-old Lily Chen, an unpaid intern at a slick media company, meets Matthew. Matthew is everything Lily is not: easygoing and effortlessly attractive, a native East Coaster and, most notably, heir to a vast pharmaceutical empire. Lily couldn’t be more different: flat-broke, raised in Tampa, the only child of scientists who fled Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Despite all this, Lily and Matthew fall in love.

In 2021, fifteen-year-old Nick Chen has never felt like he belonged on the isolated Washington island where he lives with his single mother, Lily. He can’t shake the sense she’s hiding something. When Nick sets out to find his biological father, the journey threatens to raise more questions than answers.

In immersive, moving prose, Rachel Khong weaves a profound tale of class and striving, race and visibility, and family and inheritance—a story of trust, forgiveness, and finally coming home.

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Content warning

This book contains mentions of sexual assault.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Real Americans.
Real Americans

BEIJING, 1966

She isn’t afraid, but he is. They stand, in the darkness, before a glass case of old things. A Ming dynasty inkstone. A chrysanthemum carved from horn. A Song painting stamped with ruby-red collector’s seals. And on a silk pillow, so slight it could be missed: an ancient lotus seed with a legend behind it.

The story goes like this: One night, long ago, a dragon emerged from the sky and dropped this seed into the emperor’s open hand. His advisors huddled near to examine it. What fortune! they remarked. This seed would grant the emperor his greatest wish. Unfortunately, he died that night, while contemplating his options. He might have asked for immortality.

She takes a hammer from her knapsack. With all her strength, she strikes the glass. It makes a beautifully clear sound as it shatters. Quickly, the two get to work, securing the relics. It is an attempt to spare them from the Red Guards’ destruction—an act of protest, small, against a movement she’s no match for.

The seed is unspectacular, so old it resembles a stone. Yet she’s aware it contains an entire future: roots, stems, leaves, blooms, to seeds once more—encoded, like she is. Her heart pumps blood, her lungs take in air, she sleeps, wakes, eats, excretes. Will her life be long or short? What has she chosen, she wonders, and what has chosen her? She likes the fragrance of gardenias, but not the scent of lipstick. She doesn’t mind the rain. She is in love, which feels, to her, at once easy and hard, elemental and ungraspable—like vanishing and eternity at the same time. She wants to ask of every person she meets: Is it this way for you?

“Hurry,” her companion says.

A door slams, loudly. Someone is here. The footsteps draw closer. They flee.

Outside, she opens her fist. On her bleeding palm rests a stolen seed. The story is fiction. And yet: Why shouldn’t the wish be hers?

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Why I love it

It’s thrilling when a book doesn’t shy away from big ideas or big emotions, even better if it features both. Rachel Khong has ambition to spare. Like her acclaimed debut Goodbye, Vitamin, her new novel is a family story, but she has widened her canvas. Spanning continents and generations, Real Americans tackles everything from Chinese history to the ethics of gene editing in a story that rivetingly explores whether we can truly be masters of our fates.

This story begins on the cusp of Y2K—the dawn of a new era full of unknown but tantalizing promise. Lily Chen is a Chinese-American born to two scientists who fled the Cultural Revolution. As an unpaid intern at a media company, she crosses paths with Matthew, who as a native East Coaster and trust funder couldn’t be more different than her. Nonetheless, they fall in love. Then out of it. Fast forward fifteen years and Lily is living on a remote island with her son Nick, who suspects his mother is keeping more than a few secrets from him. A journey to uncover the identity of his biological father unearths the surprising and unexpected inheritances passed down from his family to Nick.

If you like a novel that occupies your thoughts days after reading it, don’t miss out on Real Americans. This is a thoughtful and moving family saga that sings on every page.

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