Family legacies are a precarious business. How do you navigate an inheritance you neither want nor feel equipped for? And as the custodian of this inheritance, is it better to do what you think is right or to carefully maintain the status quo and preserve the family order? Spencer Wise’s debut novel The Emperor of Shoes addresses those very questions. Twenty-six year old Alex Cohen, a Jewish Bostonian, finds himself in Southern China poised to take the reins of his father’s shoe factory. Since Alex’s grandfather drove the company down the drain during his tenure, his father has been positioned as the family messiah; turning their fortunes around and restoring the Cohens (or Cohains) to the lavish lifestyles they had previously been accustomed to. But, quietly, the Tiger Step factory is struggling to adapt in a global landscape and could soon become obsolete. Just another fallen empire.
As he grows into the realisation that his father is exploiting the factory workers and bribing officials to protect his bottom line, Alex has to decide where his loyalty lies. To make matters worse, Alex is rapidly falling in love with Ivy, a seamstress in the factory whose story doesn’t add up. What is a university graduate who speaks four languages doing working on the line? Soon enough, though, Ivy’s political alignment and history of radical protest – including her presence at Tiananmen Square – become clear. She is a member of a pro-Democratic group attempting to sow dissonance among the workers – and she wants Alex to help them.
The Emperor of Shoes is, at its heart, an exploration of loyalty and tradition. Alex is torn between his love for Ivy and his belief in her principles, and something less nameable that keeps him obedient to his father and tied to his heritage. Throughout the novel this more primal loyalty is attributed to his Jewishneses, with Alex at one point referring to something his father says as “the Triple-A ball of Jewish guilt”. Indeed, Alex’s relationship with his father is fraught with these types of loaded interactions, all of which shape Alex’s personality and the decisions that he makes. Alex is like this because his father was like that. But there is love there, too, and responsibility, and that makes Alex’s choice all the more difficult.
As Robert Olen Butler puts it; “Not only is The Emperor of Shoes the most complex, nuanced, character-rich first novel I have ever read, it is one of the finest novels I have ever read that was produced at any stage of any writer’s life.”