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When reading the August pick for Read With Jenna, Jenna Bush Hager said she wished she could stick around a while longer.
“I was totally lost in their world,” Jenna said of the book’s characters — and there are quite a few, all connected by genetics and uncanny shared experiences.
August’s pick is “The Many Daughters of Afong Moy” by Jamie Ford. Jenna calls it “one of the most beautiful books of motherhood and what we pass on to those that come after us and what we inherit,” and “a book about strength and goodness.”
As Jenna explained, “The Many Daughters of Afong Moy” takes place “over many, many generations of this one incredible woman."
The book begins with Afong Moy, a real-life historical figure thought to be the first Chinese woman in the United States, and many of her ancestors — all imagined by Ford. Afong’s arrival to the U.S. in 1834 was highly publicized, as were her travels as what was effectively a carnival sideshow. But her life afterward was not recorded.
“She had all these eyeballs upon her, and yet we never really heard her speak,” Ford told TODAY. Afong was unable to return to her home country. “Her life probably had a darker side, a more tragic side, that obviously her promoters are not going to share that with the world. They've monetized her otherness into ‘exoticness.’”
Ford has written historical fiction in the past, but reached for something more experimental to tell Afong’s story.
“In telling a story about genetic inheritance, I thought she would be an interesting locus character. I could follow her descendants and they would all have let go of that tragedy, that abandonment, and that perpetual longing,” Ford said.
Ford describes his novel as an “epigenetic love story,” because by following one through many generations, he uncovers what each woman inadvertently passes on to her descendants.
Epigenetics is the notion that your behaviors and experiences can affect how your genes are expressed. A 2016 study of the children of Holocaust survivors showed that the next generation was affected. Ford wondered, through his book, if other things can be passed down, too.
“I just couldn't help but think we must inherit other things — benign things like music taste or liking spicy foods. But possibly beneficial things like emotional IQ, or how we receive and, and reciprocate with love. The book seems like a natural way to explore that,” he said.
Afong’s ancestors include Faye Moy, a stoic nurse serving in China in World War II; Zoe Moy, a student at an experimental boarding school in England in the '20s; and Greta Moy, a dating app founder in the modern day.
Linking them all together is Dorothy Moy, Washington’s poet laureate in the year 2045. Having struggled with depression her entire life, Dorothy undergoes an experimental treatment to excavate her past — even beyond, uncovering the stories of the women who came before her. Dorothy undertakes this treatment in an effort to stop her young daughter, Annabel, from undergoing the same cycle.
Jenna said she has a favorite character, as did everyone else in her life who read the book.
“(Ford) created such incredible worlds that all of us like a different storyline best,” Jenna said. “My husband loved Faye and my sister was obsessed with Dorothy. I liked all of them — but I wanted to live in that boarding school longer.”
Taken together, Jenna said the book “displays the strength of women, and a time where I think we need it most.”
For more book recommendations, check out:
- The best beach reads of all time, according to authors
- What beach read to pick up this summer, based on your zodiac sign
- All of Jenna Bush Hager's book club picks