For a generational story of understanding, for a look at recent historical Chinese eras, for a story that pierces your heart and makes you want only the best for the characters, for a blend of romance and survival and coming-of-age.
Mini Pao lives with her sister and parents in a pre-war Shanghai divided among foreign occupiers and Chinese citizens, a city known as the “Paris of the East” with its contrast of vibrant night life and repressive social mores. Already considered an old maid at twenty-three, Mini boldly rejects the path set out for her as she struggles to provide for her family and reckons with her desire for romance and autonomy. Mini’s story of love, betrayal, and determination unfolds in the Western-style cafes, open-air markets, and jazz-soaked nightclubs of Shanghai—the same city where, decades later, her granddaughter Ting embarks on her own journey toward independence.
Ting Lee has grown up behind an iron curtain in a time of scarcity, humility, and forced-sameness in accordance with the strictures of Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution. As a result, Ting’s imagination burns with curiosity about fashion, America, and most of all, her long-lost grandmother Mini’s glamorous past and mysterious present. As her thirst for knowledge about the world beyond 1970s Shanghai grows, Ting is driven to uncover her family’s tragic past and face the difficult truth of what the future holds for her if she remains in China.
This was an elaborate and impressive saga of romance, and survival, and coming-of-age. Ting ages from a child to an adult women in the course of the story, and we see Mini from late teens to her elder years. That span alone is a lot to cover, and so the story relfects that in how long it can take to read. While it was engaging the whole way through, the concepts and stories are complex enough that it simply takes some time.
The generational story-telling aspect was generally well handled, though there were times where I had forgotten where it left off with the other person (Mini versus Ting) and had to read a few pages before I remembered how old the person was, what they were dealing with at that time, and so on. The framing of it is quite smoothly integrated into the story itself though, not just as abstract flashbacks but as stories being shared with one another that are then later referenced, as well.
Mini’s story is around the time of the war and Japanese occupation, whereas Ting’s life is under the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s leadership. The contrast in societal expectations and standards of living are fairly drastic here, and that’s highlighted in the jumps from Mini to Ting. Ting’s reflections on her grandmother’s stories show how hard it is for her to understand her grandmother’s life when compared to her own. While this is still fiction, I get the sense that details of their stories could easily be drawn from the lives of real people. Thinking about that hurts a bit, because there was so much pain at times that I found myself quite grateful that I could hide behind it’s status as a novel, instead of a memoir. Realistically though, I’m sure it’s not far off from being the latter.
I’m typically a quick reader, but this one forced me to take my time. So much happened that I just needed breaks. From the pain, and from the characters at times.
This is a winding, eventful picture of three generations of women living in China. They each face their own burdens and secrets. If you’re looking for an emotional, enlightening story, this debut novel is perfect.
Thanks to NetGalley and The Greenleaf Book Group for a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.