Part of Feng’s tragedy is that so little of what occurs is under her control, at least initially. She is forced by her parents (well, mostly her mother) into an arranged and advantageous marriage in 1930s Shanghai. Jepson’s description of her first days with the powerful Sang family is captivating and heartbreaking. Imagine going into your marriage with no idea of how babies are made. And without that knowledge, how traumatized you would be with your first nights of marriage, even under the best of circumstances (which her husband Xiong Fa doesn’t provide). I thought Jepson did a good job of bringing that distant reality to life for me.
Clearly, living in a family in which a dropped teacup could mean long-lasting disgrace would either toughen you up or weed you out. Feng takes the “toughen up” route. Her bitterness at her parents’ treatment of her, her bewilderment at her beloved grandfather’s abandoning her on her wedding day and her terror of her husband’s brutal advances forged a woman as hard as steel – and just as cold. Jepsom makes Feng’s pain and resignation powerful and real, as when she asks her parents why she must marry Xiong Fa:
My question would remain unacknowledged because it needed no answer: the answer was already part of history itself. Unlike the ancient dead empire whose language described the flowers and trees, China had flourished and survived for five thousand years. It had survived because it must. It had survived by forcing its people to adhere willingly to ancient customs and rules, no matter what self-mutilation and pain that entailed or self deception was required. p. 72
However, it’s the choices she makes after she achieves some status and power that make Feng such a difficult character to understand. She doesn’t seem to learn much from her own suffering. But is that expecting too much? This book really left me wondering about the cultural framing of motherhood. If frames are a common understanding of a concept, then the U.S. American understanding of a mother can be distilled into one word: “nurturing.” But it seems clear to me that it is far from a universal concept. With Feng I feel like we get maternal Realpolitik, so pragmatic as to appear unfeeling, so realistic as to appear ugly. And yet, I’m wondering how much of my feelings about this character can be attributed to Feng’s actions, and how much can be attributed to my cultural expectations of Feng. In the final analysis, Feng makes her own judgment on herself. But others seem to evaluate her differently. In all fairness, the The Great Leap Forward didn’t necessarily advantage mothers who baked cookies and read bedtime stories. If Feng’s children were in a position to live through the Civil War and the Red Guard purges, didn’t she do a good job on some level?
Strangely, I didn’t feel like Jepson’s first-person narration gave me great insight into the characters. The historical and cultural parts of the book were more interesting than the characters for me – externalities were explained better than internalities. I would have liked the author to depict the second phase of Feng’s life, away from Shanghai, more thoroughly. Maybe that would have rendered her change of heart more believable. As it was, Feng’s lack of empathy made it hard for me to understand why people like her maid Yan and her friend Madam Zhang were so loyal to her.
Still, this is a solid debut novel. Jepson has evoked a time and a place I knew little about, and made me want to know more. I’d recommend it to those interested in historical novels, especially those with an interest in recent Chinese history. It counts toward the Historical Fiction Challenge 2012, and others working on that challenge may want to check this one out. Thanks to Historical Tapestry for hosting!
I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in exchange for my honest opinion. Please feel free to check out these other stops on the tour for more opinions:
Tuesday, December 20th: Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, December 21st: The Lost Entwife
Tuesday, December 27th: Book Hooked Blog
Wednesday, December 28th: Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, December 29th: Life in the Thumb
Monday, January 2nd: Jo-Jo Loves to Read!
Tuesday, January 3rd: Broken Teepee
Wednesday, January 4th: Savvy Verse & Wit
Thursday, January 5th: BookNAround
Monday, January 9th: Reflections of a Bookaholic
Tuesday, January 10th: Col Reads
Wednesday, January 11th: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Monday, January 16th: The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader
Tuesday, January 17th: Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday, January 18th: The House of the Seven Tails
Thursday, January 19th: Library of Clean Reads