by Duncan Jepson
Feng is the second daughter of an upwardly mobile family in Shanghai. Her beautiful sister is expected to marry brilliantly, and all their parents’ attention is focused on making her a marketable, cultured wife. This leaves Feng free to wander the family garden aimlessly with her grandfather in perpetual childhood. However, with her sister’s sudden death, Feng is suddenly expected to take her place, and is hastily married into the powerful Sang family. The women of the Sang family are cruel to her, constantly criticizing and mocking the great gaps in Feng’s knowledge. Feng swears to never be like them, but as the years roll by and she learns how to survive in upper-class Shanghai, she becomes truly becomes one of the Sang family.
Feng is an extremely difficult character to like. At the beginning of the novel, she’s seventeen – but thanks to her sheltered upbringing, she acts like a ten year old. It stretches credulity that in a family as ruthlessly self-promoting as hers would have left her so childlike and unaware of the world around her, but there it is. It only gets worse when she moves into the Sang complex. She’s dead set on hating her husband – who seems a fairly compassionate and gentle man who would love her if she would let him – and nurses a seething anger for decades because she was placed in his family. She is full of bitterness and vinegar, manipulative and cruel. Her attempts at redemption, when they finally come, feel forced and insincere.
The way the story itself is structured is frustrating, too. Feng’s marriage takes place in the 1930s, and we follow her ascent in society without ever really experiencing the glitzy world outside the Sang complex. That’s bad enough, but then World War II hit. Here was a chance for Duncan Jepson to really explore an intense situation and how it affected his characters – and he completely ignored it. The narrative just skips that time period completely. A few sentences more or less stated “And then the war happened. Some bad stuff went down, but I weathered it. Next!” I couldn’t believe it. It was such a mindboggling lapse of authorial imagination. I hadn’t been enjoying the story all that much anyway, but the moment I realized that World War II wasn’t in the novel the book was ruined.
If you’re interested in reading a story about Shanghai in the 1930s-1950s, don’t bother with this book. For superior storytelling and amazing, strong female protagonists, check out Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy.
2 out of 5 stars
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