What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan


Title: What We Were Promised

Author: Lucy Tan

My verdict: 3.5/5

In a nutshell:

After years of chasing the American dream, the Zhen family – Wei, Lina and their daughter Karen, returned to China and joined an elite community of Chinese-born, Western-educated professionals.

Drama enfolded Lina discovered that her ivory bracelet went missing, and Wei’s brother, Qiang, also Lina’s old fame, reappeared in their lives (cue dramatic music) after decades on the run with a local gang.

My thoughts:

Be warned. This is an UNPOPULAR OPINION.

I tried my best to like it, to appreciate it in every sense of the word, but I just can’t. Maybe I’m not the audience for it. This review is, as always, my personal opinion.

What I liked and appreciated:

It was an interesting story which had really good themes – family, love, wealth, social status, friendships, and a brief look into our Chinese culture, food, traditions and beliefs. It started off strong with a great opening – hooked me right in with the case of Lina’s stolen bracelet.

I loved Tan’s beautiful, poetic analogies – definitely her strength. One that I liked,

“…when a stranger’s eyes landed on her, she knew that to this person, she could be anyone – and the possibilities excited her. If she often felt lonely around strangers, she also sometimes thought that her “self” – that unformed possibility – might be the best company she’d ever had.”

I loved that for the simple fact that she weaved words that beautifully expressed what and how Sunny felt among strangers.

Another one was an intimate moment between Lina and Qiang.

“A lifetime passed. No time passed at all. The minutes bloomed like a flower, closed back up into a fist. She knew then that it was love, because what else could have such a multiplying effect?”

Her ability to write from different POVs, giving us different perspective of people of different classes and circumstances, is also one of the story’s plus points. It was through their eyes, I saw how differently they viewed each other, especially in terms of wealth, love and happiness.


Somehow I felt the characters were always at arm’s length – not compelling enough for me to empathize with any of them. They were neither likable nor unlikeable. One character that stood out to me though, albeit appearing only for a short time, was Little Cao, the Zhen’s driver. He definitely made an impression!


It started strong, then it kinda ‘fizzled out’…If you’re expecting a huge ‘event’ (the main pull which I call the ‘carrot’) to unfold, you’d be slightly disappointed. I guess the author intended the ‘carrot’ to be the love affair between Qiang and Lina, but it just wasn’t tempting enough. I think maybe because the carrot was hung there for too long and I lost interest. The ending and Lina’s resolution, all seemed too ‘sudden’ and abrupt.

There were some parts which I felt, were a little longer than it should be, such as Lina and Quang’s background stories, and the Expo.

The tone throughout the story was rather serious and melancholic.


That being said, this being Tan’s debut novel, is a promising one. I’ll be looking out for her future works.

My family’s tradition/culture/beliefs that we commonly practice:

  • When I went for my first job interview, my mom told me to step in with my RIGHT FOOT first, as it brings good luck 🙂
  • NO SWEEPING on Chinese New Year because it is believed that it will sweep away wealth and good luck!
  • Mandarin oranges, if translated from Cantonese (one of the many Chinese dialects), means GOLD.
  • The picking of Chinese names, especially boys, is very important – strokes, meaning and the relationship between each character are some of the important factors to be considered.

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