Irene Shen is newly widowed and worried about her relatonship with her three daughters when she cooks up the idea of a tour of mainland China with the girls, her sister, and their mother. She is, in part, trying to atone for saying "Good riddance" as her late husband walked out the door the last time, only to die in a car accident hours later. She chooses to ignore the girls' reluctance to go on the trip, to put their own lives on hold for some strange notion of returning to their roots despite the fact that each was born in New York. Irene also feels the need to reconnect with her own semi-estranged mother and distant sister, making for an unlikely travel group with each member harboring her own secrets and disappointments. And despite the reluctance on the part of all participants, everyone falls in with Irene's tour plans. The characters' desires to remain invulnerable is absolutely palpable as they hide themselves from each other. But throughout their journey both within China and into their relationships with each other, they start to slowly unfold, allowing glimpses of their true and hidden natures.
Irene's daughters, Nora, Kay, and Sophie, are second generation Chinese-Americans who fit the stereotypical Asian-American ideal, at least superficially. But they each have their own challenges. Nora is afraid to trust men and cannot even commit enough to her fiance to set a date or even tell her family they are engaged so when she finds him cheating and kicks him out, she understands that he has only done what she long expected of him. Kay has gone to China for school, looking for an authentic experience and understanding, tired of being asked in the US where she is from when the correct answer is New York. But she comes to understand that she does not come from China either. She has been trying to rescue young women from careers as "hostesses" aka prostitutes but finds that she doesn't understand the cultural situation well enough to save anyone, least of all herself. Sophie, the youngest, has only just graduated from high school. She is filled with self-loathing and suffers from bulimia, unsatisfied with the person she is and wanting to break free.
As the tour progresses, the characters start learning to accept each other for who they are instead of imposing an outside vision of who they should be on each other, to accept each other flaws and all. And as the girls' relinquish their hold on the secrets they have been concealing, they work on their grandmother and the silence she's maintained for years. Before the tour, Kay had discovered that Lin Yulan had been a feminist revolutionary but none of them knows much beyond that and the fact that she had left their grandfather and emigrated to America, following in her daughters' footsteps. The girls push for a reconciliation between their aging grandparents, not understanding the depth of the betrayal the memory of which they are besmirching. But when they see that some hurts and betrayals are too deep and too permanent to ever heal, they back off and allow Lin Yulan the peace of her own choices.
The descriptions of the scenery is very evocative and majestic. And there is a respectful reverence towards China's tourist attractions and landmarks that shines though. The characters are multi-faceted, flawed but sympathetic. The ways in which they hurt each other precisely because they love each other and the feelings of inadequacy and disppointment is rife in the depiction of their relationships with each other. Their striving for perfection, for themselves and in each others' eyes is a theme that permeates all of their interactions. This well-written novel will appeal to book clubs and to readers who enjoy not only tales of families but those looking for a story that ultimately rewards compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and love.
For more information about Deanna Fei and the book visit her webpage, her facebook page and follow her on Twitter.
Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.