Real Americans

Real Americans

by Rachel Khong

Narrated by Louisa Zhu, Eric Yang, Eunice Wong

Unabridged — 14 hours, 40 minutes

Real Americans

Real Americans

by Rachel Khong

Narrated by Louisa Zhu, Eric Yang, Eunice Wong

Unabridged — 14 hours, 40 minutes

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Notes From Your Bookseller

Other people's families are always more interesting that our own and we really didn't want to leave Lily and Nick (and the rest of the cast) behind… Grab a friend, this is a family you'll want to talk about.

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER ¿ READ WITH JENNA'S MAY BOOK CLUB PICK ¿ From the award-winning author of Goodbye, Vitamin: How far would you go to shape your own destiny?*An exhilarating novel of American identity that spans three generations in one family and asks: What makes us who we are? And how inevitable are our futures?*

"Mesmerizing"-Brit Bennett ¿ "A page turner.”-Ha Jin ¿ “Gorgeous, heartfelt, soaring, philosophical and deft"-Andrew Sean Greer ¿ "Traverses time with verve and feeling."-Raven Leilani

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 it provides 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.

Exuberant and explosive, Real Americans is a social novel par excellence that asks:*Are we destined, or made? And if we are made, who gets to do the making? Can our genetic past be overcome?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly


Khong returns (after Goodbye, Vitamin) with an impressive family drama. It opens in 1999 with 22-year-old narrator Lily, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, scraping by in New York City on an unpaid internship. When she meets über-wealthy and über-handsome Matthew it feels like a fairy tale, but a sense of imbalance between them remains as their relationship develops. Khong then fast-forwards to 2021, when Lily and Matthew’s son, Nick, is a teenager. Lily and Matthew are no longer together or even in contact, though it’s unclear why. Disconnected from his family history, Nick struggles to understand his identity. He reconnects with Matthew but finds the dynamic strained and ultimately relocates to San Francisco, where he crosses paths with his maternal grandmother, May, who narrates the novel’s third section, set in 1960s China. Young, ambitious May (then called Mei Ling) attends Peking University on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Khong is both a perceptive prose stylist and an accomplished storyteller, and she shines brightest when portraying differing cultural styles of parental love (“It wasn’t American,” Nick thinks at one point, “for to love as much as she did”). Khong reaches new heights with this fully-fledged outing. Agent: Marya Spence, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Apr.)

From the Publisher

A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2024, at publications including: The New York Times, Oprah Daily, Today, TIME, and more!

"If you liked Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, read Real Americans by Rachel Khong." —The Washington Post

"It's a tale as old as time: Poor girl meets rich boy, they fall in love, and they live happily ever after. Well, not quite... A profound read."—People

"Remarkable... Folded into [Real Americans] are doomed love stories, fancy parties, a subplot about epigenetics, Chinese people who look white and yummy treats... The book also poses a dizzying array of questions: What does it mean to be American, and who gets to say who is one?” —Robert Ito, The New York Times

“A…masterful, shape-shifting novel about multiracial identity….What makes Americans 'real'? Is it our competitive drive? Our craving for wealth and status? Our insatiable quest for scientific advancement? Or is it—inevitably—the color of our skin and eyes?... [Rachel] Khong manages these twisting threads with masterful deftness.... [An] irresistible puzzle of a novel."—Aimee Liu, Los Angeles Times

"[Rachel] Khong layers the lives of her characters to challenge how well we can really know one another... [Khong]…captures the feeling of floating in the in-between, not firmly tethered to one pole of identity or another but instead looking for a way to feel secure in your own space... And that title—Real Americans—evokes more questions than any single book could answer. What is American, and what is real?" —Lucy Feldman, TIME

"Real Americans is both a novel of ideas and of beautiful sentences. Khong's prose is a pleasure to read... even as the questions she raises are chilling, indeed."—May-lee Chai, Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Riveting in its unexpected turns, Real Americans is a novel about past mistakes and their echoes — and a reminder that those histories need not be binding."—Hannah Bae, San Francisco Chronicle

"An absolute page turner, this multi-generation family saga is quietly suspenseful... Spanning between the 1960s to present day, Khong weaves a gripping tale you are, for sure, not going to want to miss."—"Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2024," Kami Tei, Amazon Editor

"Unforgettable...Vibrant, tender and one to pass onto a friend."—"Best New Books of Spring," Oprah Daily

"This multigenerational stunner asks a thought-provoking question: Do we have any control over our destiny, or do some people just get lucky?"—Real Simple

"[A]n ambitious, spacious book...I was entirely entranced...from the start, and I talked about it endlessly to anyone who would listen when I finished.” —Jana Pollack, Skimm Reads editor

"By encompassing a family as a whole, [Real Americans] asks big questions about our lineage and futures, how much is really up to us."—"Most Anticipated Books of 2024," Literary Hub

Real Americans is a grand novel that explores the American psyche, dramatizing the fundamental American belief in the ability to change the world and improve humanity. Rachel Khong shows infinite and colorful perceptions of the world, which are often leavened with wisdom. Besides being a page turner, this book is also an eye-opener, imaginative and exhilarating.”—Ha Jin, author of Waiting

“Aglow with love in its many forms, suffused with questions of where—and to whom—we belong, Real Americans is a book of rare charm. Khong untangles the roots of family with a wry, tender attention that will leave readers as comforted as they are challenged.”—C Pam Zhang, author of Land of Milk and Honey

“Khong masterfully explores a family splintered by science, struggling to redefine their own lives after uncovering harrowing secrets. Real Americans is a mesmerizing multigenerational novel about privilege, identity and the illusions of the American dream.”—Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half

Library Journal


Khong's (Goodbye, Vitamin) captivating novel spans three generations, from the cultural revolution in China to the late 1990s in New York City to the present day. Themes of intergenerational estrangement are woven around a central focus on genetic experimentation. The main character, Lily, is the child of mother May, who fled China during the cultural revolution. Lily meets Nick in New York City circa Y2K and falls in love, not realizing that he is the wealthy scion of the company where she interns. After Lily gives birth to son Matthew, she learns that her parents worked with Nick's father to genetically alter her without her consent. This allowed her to become pregnant while not passing on her own inherited genetic deficiencies and produce a child who doesn't have any Asian features. A furious Lily cuts off contact with her husband and her mother. When Matthew comes of age, he contacts Nick but becomes disenchanted with his father and his world. Later, Nick is able to help Matthew at a critical juncture, and an ultimate family reconciliation creates an uplifting conclusion. VERDICT The novel's parallel estrangements in both the current and preceding generations highlight the moral challenges surrounding genetic modification.—Henry Bankhead

JUNE 2024 - AudioFile

A trio of talented narrators immerses listeners in the thorny multigenerational story of a Chinese American family. The audiobook opens in 1999 as 22-year-old Lily, voiced with matter-of-fact directness by Louisa Zhu, meets charismatic, impossibly wealthy Matthew. Despite Lily's initial reservations, largely fueled by Matthew's intimidating family, the two marry and have a son. Later, listeners learn that the son, Nick, has grown up with no knowledge of his father's identity. Eric Yang's measured portrayal of Nick captures his confusion over his perplexing upbringing and growing bitterness as he uncovers long-buried secrets. Eunice Wong closes out the story with her portrayal of Lily's mother, May. Wong channels May's youthful intensity and the regretful understanding that marks her later years. A wholly absorbing family drama. S.A.H. © AudioFile 2024, Portland, Maine

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2024-01-05
A sweeping exploration of choice, chance, class, race, and genetic engineering in three generations of a Chinese American family.

Khong’s follow-up to her sweet, slim debut—Goodbye, Vitamin (2017)—is again about parents and children but on a more ambitious scale, portraying three generations in what feel like three linked novellas, or somehow also like three connected gardens. The first begins in 1999 New York City, where Lily Chen stands next to a man at an office party who wins a big-screen TV in the raffle. He insists she take it; he is Matthew Maier, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, and has all the TVs he needs. On their first date, they go to Paris after dinner, and as this section ends, they’ve had their first child. The second part of the book moves to 2021 on an island off the coast of Washington state. It’s narrated by Lily’s now-15-year-old son, Nick; his father is nowhere in sight, at least for now. The closing section unfolds in 2030 in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s told by Lily’s now elderly mother, May, with an extended flashback to her youth in China during the Cultural Revolution and her first years in the U.S. As a budding scientist, May was fascinated by genetics. Of the lotus flowers she studied at university, she observes, “Raindrop-shaped buds held petals that crept closer, each day, to unfurling. As humans we were made of the same stuff, but their nucleotides were coded such that they grew round, green leaves instead of our human organs, our beating hearts.” This concern for how and why we turn out the way we do animates the book on every level, and along with science, social constructs like race and class play major roles. Every character is dear, and every one of them makes big mistakes, causing a ripple effect of anger and estrangement that we watch with dismay, and hope.

Bold, thoughtful, and delicate at once, addressing life’s biggest questions through artfully crafted scenes and characters.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940159543301
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 04/30/2024
Edition description: Unabridged
Sales rank: 274,717

Read an Excerpt

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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