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From an exciting new voice in literary fiction comes a transfixing and timely story about a young Jewish American expat who assumes the helm of his family’s shoe factory in present-day southern China, and his burgeoning relationship with a seamstress intent on inspiring dramatic political change, for fans of Adam Johnson, Mischa Berlinski and Madeleine Thien.
Alex Cohen, a twenty-six-year-old Jewish Bostonian, is living in a remote village in southern China, where his father runs a family-owned shoe factory. Lost and searching, Alex reluctantly assumes the helm of the company, absorbing the generations-old secrets of the trade from his loving but neurotic father. As Alex explores the plant’s vast floors and assembly lines he comes to a grim realization: employers are exploited, regulatory systems are corrupt and Alex’s own father is engaging in payoffs and bribes to protect the bottom line. Then he meets a seamstress named Ivy.
As Alex and Ivy grow close, Alex’s sympathies begin to shift to the Chinese workers, who labor under brutal conditions, stitching, sewing and cobbling shoes for American companies. But when Ivy’s past resurfaces, her broader goals become apparent. She is an embedded organizer of a pro-democratic Chinese party, secretly sowing dissonance among her fellow laborers. Will Alex remain loyal to his father and his heritage? Or will the sparks of revolution ignite?
Drawing on his own family’s experiences, Spencer Wise explores the evolution of a precarious Jewish family empire as it struggles to adapt in a global landscape. Deftly plotted and vibrantly drawn, The Emperor of Shoes is a timely meditation on idealism, ambition, father-son rivalry and cultural revolution set against a striking backdrop of social and technological change in contemporary southern China.