Verdict:Probably a better read for everyone else than it was for me. My experience was somewhat dull, but I have no doubt this will be a hit with most other readers if they think they would like it!
Recommended: eh For a glimpse into 1920s Shanghai, for a historical fantasy gangster story (not a common combo I think), for flavors of Romeo & Juliet but ultimately its own standing story
The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery. A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal. But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.
Look, I know. This book has everything. Shanghai in 1920s, one of my favorite place-time combos. A basis in Shakespeare. A fantasy element of monsters. A touch of brutality and gore to darken the story.
So why didn’t I love it???
I’m a bit baffled, honestly. I’ve tried to pinpoint what kept me from falling in love with this book, as I should have by all rights. I think my issue was partly that I wasn’t expecting it to be intertwined with magic and I wasn’t really in the mood for that — and obviously that’s a personal issue, nothing with the book. But the bigger issue I faced was that I just didn’t really care about either of the main characters.
Approaching, you wouldn’t even know it was a library or reading room. The gorgeous LiYuan library is designed with the same sticks the locals collect for fuel in the winter. It makes it blend in to the mountainside where it’s built just a five minute walk out of town.
The stick covering also creates a lush and calm atmosphere inside, with plenty of daylight softly tempered by the scattered pattern from the sticks. The rest of the interior is made of wood as well, and clever split level changes. It looks positively magical and warm; you can’t convince me this isn’t a place I’d want to stay forever. 🥰
Recommended: yes 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.
Summary 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.
Thoughts: 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.