By Gish Jen. Knopf. 379 pp. $24.95

Asian-American literature has, for whatever reason, been unable to evolve past what one might call the Cyrano's Nose phase. All too often writers are saddled with the anxiety of ethnic identity and feel compelled either to address it or be accused of bad faith.

Whether the author or the literary market is to blame, Gish Jen's new novel, The Love Wife, falls into this trap. The characters are indistinctly drawn except for their self-absorbed awareness of racial identity, which they bear like monikers in a morality play.

The story begins shortly after the death of Mama Wong, a harpy immigrant mother type so banal that her mantra is "Only in America!" She spent her youth making a fortune in Chinatown real-estate speculation and the latter part of her life bedeviling the marriage between her son, Carnegie, and his unsuitably older, unforgivably white wife, whom she has dubbed Blondie. Mama Wong ceaselessly tormented Carnegie and Blondie for robbing their three kids -- two adopted Asian girls, one biological baby boy -- of a Chinese identity.

We learn that, back in the day, Mama Wong offered Carnegie "one million dollars cash" not to marry Blondie; when he refused, Mama Wong made the same offer to Blondie. The couple chose love above venality, only to accept blood money from Mama Wong at a later date anyway and then renege on their promise about how the money was to be used.

After Mama's death, following a long battle with Alzheimer's, a mysterious missive from a relative in Hong Kong reveals that she has left a will, which comes with a bizarre stipulation: Carnegie's inheritance of his mother's millions is dependent upon his taking a "relative" from China into his home for "a few years," to serve as a live-in nanny to the children. This is Lan, a tackily attired, lissome fortysomething au pair from mainland China. Blondie fears that Mama Wong has, from the grave, sent Carnegie an unofficial second wife -- the "Love Wife" of the title -- who will subvert the children and make them Chinese and, by extension, no longer Blondie's.

One of the things about this book that nags at the reader is the murky motivation behind the act that propels this story: Mama Wong's will was not witnessed or notarized, was written by someone not in full command of her wits, and was not legally binding. Yet Carnegie and Blondie feel compelled to follow its mandate, seemingly out of sheer perversity. Blondie is so lethargic in preventing what she knows will bring about the destruction of her family that she cannot win the reader's sympathy.

Carnegie also sleepwalks through the novel. When describing Lan, he attributes the woman's youthful appearance to "that Asian predisposition toward subcutaneous fat." He ponders a spot on the bum of his half-Chinese, half-Caucasian baby and muses: "Was that not a Mongolian spot? A faint bluish bruise-ish indelible shadow, proof of some Asian connection." Wong describes Asians generally as having "a certain proclivity to skin sensitivities; for example, an inability to wear wool." Perhaps the author makes such statements ironically -- perhaps, for example, Carnegie's allergies are a metaphor for alienation. But she constructs the character too listlessly for the reader to make this determination one way or another. Carnegie's chief characteristic is cowardice, and not of a compelling variety. His occasional spurts of energy come from combating racial epithets, as when a skinhead calls him "chink boy" and Carnegie retorts (though only in his mind), "Let's see your tax return." We learn nothing from the character's thinking up nerdy, platitudinous comebacks and then keeping them to himself. Lan, meanwhile, would be largely unremarkable except for a mysterious past in which she was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and in which she witnessed the murder of her father. The whole family is arbitrarily drawn to the sagacity with which this experience supposedly endows the colorless Lan. She serves as a blank canvas onto which the Wongs project their needs and fears: the children's need for a connection to their origins, Carnegie's need for a tie to his deceased mother, and Blondie's need to articulate the foreignness that she cannot trust in her own husband. Lan is the unmoved mover.

Jen is a skillful prose stylist, in this book experimenting with a tricky narrative device that shifts between different points of view, with each of the characters telling the story in the first person. This works well in some cases, particularly when characters need to reveal shameful motivations, as when Blondie confesses, "I loved it more than I would have said that my genes were not swallowed up by Carnegie's." Such powerfully honest remarks reveal the chinks (no pun intended) in her marriage: Blondie is plagued by the fear, real or imagined, that after all is said and done, this interracial pairing inevitably comes down to a tug-of-war over which race the baby resembles.

The shifting point of view, however, is occasionally frustrating to the reader, who can only glimpse into the lives of the characters. When they behave rashly, as when one decides to leave home, it almost seems as though the character has decided to escape from the book.

Jen is an unassailably talented writer, but her strong prose only brings the underdeveloped state of her characters into even sharper focus. She reaches top form, oddly enough, when writing about Caucasians. Perhaps they allow Jen to feel at home in her novelist's skin, to exercise her right to comment on universal truths. Otherwise she appears trapped within self-imposed strictures, within an almost pessimistic view of how ethnic characters should be allowed to behave, and her ethnic people, by their nature, are allowed to reveal only microcosmic axioms. *

Y. Euny Hong is a journalist living in Washington, D.C. She has just completed her first novel.

Gish Jen