Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson

Without meaning to do it, I’ve read a number of novels recently with unsympathetic first-person narrators. But Duncan Jepson’s All the Flowers in Shanghai is unique among my recent reads, since the narrator, Feng, is completely aware that she is unsympathetic. In fact, the entire book is a kind of letter to her daughter, begging for forgiveness for a life that at the end she wishes she had lived differently. It’s an interesting approach to a novel.

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


  1. I have a really hard time with main characters that I don't like! Sounds like an interesting read though nonetheless!

  2. Actually, it was interesting. But I agree, it's harder to really get into a book without an unlikeable main character.

  3. I absolutely love your discussion of motherhood. That's what my entire Master's thesis was about, and it's a question that still tugs at me. You're right that the idea of motherhood is partly cultural, and you're also right that, if Feng prepared her children for the real world, she was a good mother.

    This book didn't look like something I'd typically pick up, but you've made me want to grab it. Thanks so much for the thoughtful review!

  4. @Col: Really solid review -- you pulled out threads that intrigued me but I couldn't articulate because I was so over the story when I finished. I found the book a bit tiresome despite my keenness on women's lives. You've made me step back and think about this book, though -- so thank you!

    @Picky: I'd love to see what you think of this one -- I might still have my copy -- do you want it if I do?

  5. @Amused -- Obviously, I mean WITH an unlikeable narrator :)

    @Picky -- Thanks so much. You did your Master's in the area? That sounds so fascinating! I would definitely recommend this one then, and I would love to hear your thoughts on it!

    @Audra -- I noticed you were on the tour too, but only skimmed your review so I wouldn't be too influenced. I went back and read it, and I think you were very fair, just focusing in some places I didn't. The Lifetime Movie-esque line was great :)

  6. Most reviews I've read seemed to like, but not love this one, which is still great for a debut novel.

    I would probably read it as well at some point. Thanks for sharing with us.

  7. @Diane -- I agree. It wasn't perfect, but a solid first effort. I am interested to see what Jepson does next. It would also be interesting to see what he does with a male protagonist.

  8. Sounds like a very intriguing read to me! Very Chinese too. I added it to my TBR list and hope to read it soon :)

  9. Very interesting insights and review, it sounds like a thought provoking book.

    I love when the exploration of another culture makes us see our own reactions and responses in a different light.

  10. I don't think I've ever read a book where the narrator is aware that he/she is unlikable - it's a unique premise for sure!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  11. Plot is essential to me, so I don't have to like characters to like a book. I really like the time period of this book and will have to look into it.

  12. This strikes me as an interesting premise -- and like there might be alot of fodder for discussion for book clubs.
    I am also interested that this book, exploring motherhood, with a female narrator, was written by a man.

  13. As long as the tale is told well, I don't have to like the protagonist, in fact sometimes it's fun to follow a character without any redeeming qualities, one book that springs to mind is Nick Caves, The Death of Bunny Munroe, which I loved altho you'd need all sorts of imaging equipment to find anything likeable about the character.In that vein this book has some interest & reminds me of some Japanese literature, but can't pin down which.

  14. Thanks for reviewing this one. I like the idea of the book and the cover is gorgeous but if the characters are not really interesting or beliveable, I will pass... Thanks for being so honest. New follower by the way

  15. Great review. I have tried to read several books based in Japan and China but never seem to be able to get into them.

  16. I wonder if the fact that the narrator is aware that they are unlikeable makes it easier to tolerate? I find it hard to like a book when I cannot relate to or empathize with the characters.

    All that being said, it does sound like an interesting story - thanks for the review!


I absolutely love comments. Thanks for taking the time to share! Col