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Jenna Bush Hager says her May 2024 pick is a book you’ll ‘fall madly in love with’

The book "shapeshifts" from one genre to another.
Read with Jenna May pick
/ Source: TODAY

Jenna Bush Hager describes her May 2024 Read With Jenna pick as a book “you’re going to open and fall madly in love with.”

“Real Americans” by Rachel Khong is the club’s May selection, and follows three generations of the Chen family and the many places the years take them — from Beijing to New York City, then to a small town in the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco.

“It’s set in 2000, right when Y2K was happening, and it starts as a love story,” Jenna says. “But then it spans time and place, so that really, it’s a story of family and what we carry, what we pass down, secrets, and how they can divide us, and then bring us back together again. You will love, love, love this book.”

“Real Americans” begins on the cusp of Y2K in 1999, when Lily Chen is struggling to make her own way in New York City. She meets Matthew Allen at a company holiday party. So begins a whirlwind romance.

A little more than 20 years later, Lily’s son Nick doesn’t feel like he fits in in their small town in Washington State. He asks his mother for details about his father, but she stays mum. When Nick starts to unravel why his mom doesn’t want to talk about his father, the family is forced to confront a major betrayal.

“Real Americans” by Rachel Khong

“(The book) asks a lot of questions and I think one of the main questions is, ‘How do we become who we become?’” Khong tells “It starts out as maybe a historical novel and then it’s maybe a romance, and then it’s something else — it sort of shapeshifts in terms of genre.”

“And that was by design,” she adds. “I was exploring American narratives and myths.”

Khong says she was interested in challenging herself after publishing her debut novel “Goodbye, Vitamin” in 2017, which followed one character over the course of one year.

“I never want to do the same thing twice,” Khong says. “And so with this book, I was really interested in not just writing from one perspective, but writing from multiple perspectives and also writing about how different characters’ lives intersect.”

Khong says she began writing what would become “Real Americans” in December 2017, thinking it would be a short story about the character Lily.

“Then it kept accumulating things. It sort of snowballed and kept acquiring these questions and these themes,” she describes.

More “lightbulb moments” occurred over the next several years, and Khong began piecing together the story, the additional characters and their backstories.

“A lot of these characters, they’re not how they appear,” Khong says. “You might look at them and think you might make assumptions about who they are. But there’s so much more to it than what you can just see with your own eyes.”

In addition to the other characters, the setting expands much further than New York.

Khong says she has connections to some of the places in the book, like living in San Francisco, but for others, she visited and felt “compelled” by them, like Seattle, where she went on a road trip with her two younger brothers and visited several oyster farm.

It was on another trip to Seattle that she found out she would become a Read With Jenna author, Khong says.

“I was at this café, and I was eavesdropping on all these Seattle professionals,” Khong says with a laugh. “And then I opened my laptop and I saw this email and I was just in shock. The world sort of fell away, I stopped eavesdropping. It was really surreal.”

“When I got the news, I was just so I felt like so excited. I felt relieved. Like, ‘Oh my God, somebody got it and somebody is interested in what I wrote.’ And that was just the most meaningful thing. I just spent the rest of the day in a haze,” she continues, adding she then went to walk around the Seattle Public Library.

Khong adds she hopes that “Real Americans” leaves readers questioning why it can be difficult for parents and their children to understand each other, as well as what makes someone a “true American.”

“I think I’m always just curious about people,” Khong says. “I’m curious about their backstories. I think we live in a world where it’s sometimes hard to get those stories. It’s so noisy and everyone is so busy all the time. I have a real desire to just like, really get in deep with people and hear their stories.”