In 1930's Shanghai, in a world on the verge of massive change, Feng lives with her mother, father, older sister, and grandfather. Her sister is the major focus of her mother's energies, leaving Feng, who, it is assumed, will care for her parents in their old age, to the love and company of her grandfather. While her sister, selfish, spoiled, and unfeeling, commands every bit of attention on herself and her upcoming marriage into a socially superior family, seventeen year old Feng wanders in the next door gardens with her grandfather, meeting a boy, Bi, from a distant village. As she starts to fantasize about life with Bi, she is only partially cognizant of the looming disaster in her own home. And when she, as a dutiful Chinese daughter, must step in and marry the unappealing suitor chosen for her sister, relinquishing all hopes of a quiet country life, she does so unhesitatingly.
When she marries into the Sang family, Feng is young and clumsy, not the polished, slick young woman her sister was, and she suffers scorn and cruelty at the hands of her new in-laws. Her husband is kind enough but he is a dutiful son and under his parents' thumb so does as he is commanded without a thought to his fearful wife's wants or well-being. Feng is miserable having only her maid Yan in whom to confide and to trust for guidance and friendship. And it her maid Yan to whom she confide the terrible act of revenge she plots against her situation and all those who surround her. It is Yan who must carry out her mistress' awful plan, the plan that will haunt Feng for the rest of her life.
Feng is an unlikable character, growing from a naive, uncomplicated young woman drifting through life into a bitter, nasty, warped, and hateful woman. Having been forced to live her sister's life, she finally becomes her cruel sister. Were this dislike on the reader's part intentionally incurred on the author's part, it would perhaps be acceptable but I suspect that in actual fact, we are to view Feng's changed character with sympathy given her situation. Maybe the cultural divide is too great or our experiences too different but I found myself unable to feel any sympathy and this colored how I felt about the novel as a whole. Certainly Feng had a neglectful upbringing, knowing that she was of no worth to her parents. Certainly she was in a loveless arranged marriage. Certainly she was ill-treated by her in-laws, holding no value to them except as a vessel to produce an heir. But the way in which she stewed over the injustices done to her and the life-altering revenge she chose to deny everyone who had wronged her what they had so hoped for (but which she never divulged so only she tasted the bitterness of her horrible, and ultimately regretted triumph) was beyond the pale.
The writing itself is very evocative and draws the rarified world of upper class Shanghai well. As a domestic drama set mainly in the constrained world of women, there is little intrusion from the outside world. Surely there should have been though, as China suffered a brutal occupation and lengthy war with Japan, including the bloody Battle of Shanghai, a civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, and the rise of Mao Zedong and his harsh policies. There is little mention of these massive changes during the narrative despite the fact that the Sang family, as part of Shanghai's wealthy ruling elite, would have been gravely (and likely very adversely) affected by each of these historical instances. And their passing references glossed over the brutality and hardship that would have accompanied these events.
The characters in the novel are quite simple with only Feng and her husband showing any growth or dimensionality. The setting is interesting but given short shrift and the historical is all but ignored until the very end of the story. There are a few coincidences too fantastic, just a bit too deus ex machina in the plot and the great leap forward in time after Feng's son is born is slightly disorienting. This was a good enough read, spoiled a bit by Feng's character, but it missed out on being so much more given the time and the setting.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.