Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review: The Painter From Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Pan Yuliang, Chinese ex-pat artist. Have you heard of her? I hadn't either but this novel limns a fascinating and believable life for this not particularly well known historic figure. Orphaned young and raised by an opium addicted uncle, Pan Yuliang is sold into prostitution in her teens. She is bought out of her contract by a government offical whom she ultimately marries, becoming his concubine or "second wife." Amazingly, given the political climate in China during her lifetime, she is not only allowed to study at a prominent art school in Shanghai, but she also wins a scholarship to go to Paris and study there. Her work is post-Impressionist and both Asian and European in feel with her most famous and controversial paintings being of nudes, and very commonly of herself nude. While in France, she meets and associates with other young Chinese (Zhou Enlai is one such person) who will ultimately help to change the face of their homeland and drive people like Pan Yuliang from the China racing headlong towards the Cultural Revolution.

This was a completely engrossing novel which kept me reading long past when the light should have been out. Epstein has drawn a very believable story for Pan Yuliang, from her beginnings as a maid in a brothel all the way to being at the nadir of the post-impressionist art movement in China. She's a warm and sympathetic character who faces set-backs with a bit of fatalism and a steely resolve, an intriguing mix in a character. Although this is billed as novel about Pan Yuliang the artist, it is quite far along in the narrative before she tries her hand at any drawing at all, which I had not expected. And while her early life was fascinating, I read with a small sense of "let's get to the painting part" nagging at the back of my mind. Pan Yuliang is very definitely the main character here, with few other characters appearing and lasting in the novel. There are no throw-away characters and no outside tangents to take the reader's attention from the major story, allowing the reader to crawl more fully into Yuliang's skin and experience the highs and lows of her life with her. I went searching on the internet for pictures of her work once I finished the book and obviously Epstein did a good job describing them as they weren't startlingly different from what I had imagined. They aren't particularly to my taste but the book definitely was. I recommend it for those who enjoy historical fiction, art history, or just a plain old good story that will keep you reading past your bedtime.

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