China represents many things to many people: the past; the future. And for three generations of women — all searching — it may come to mean the present.
After the death of her husband, Bill, Irene is cast adrift. He was planning on leaving, yes, but not leaving. Not leaving the world in the most permanent way possible. And without him there to anchor her, even in anger, she’s abandoned to confront the tatters of her once-bright career. The threat of an empty nest only adds to her sense of urgency: she must reconnect. She must find what once made her whole.
Irene’s three daughters are all fighting to stay afloat, too. Oldest daughter Nora works on Wall Street, trying to prove herself as more than a pretty Asian face amid a sea of pedantic male professionals. When her live-in boyfriend, Jesse, proves unfaithful, Nora must decide what it is she wanted from him — and what she wants from herself.
Middle child Kay is the most interested in her Chinese ancestry, choosing to spend a year studying in the country her parents once called home. She throws herself into learning the customs of a foreign land, all the while avoiding the pain of her father’s death. Youngest daughter Sophie is the last one at home, preparing for college and a life away from her loving but needy mother. But no one knows Sophie harbors a secret of her own.
Added to the mix are Irene’s mother, the girls’ grandmother, affectionately called “Ma” — a former Chinese revolutionary who fled to Taiwan when she and her husband were young. Over the years, Ma and Ba drifted apart and eventually divorced, bringing Ma — alone — to the United States, where Irene and Bill had begun forming a life for themselves on the East Coast. But time eventually took Ma away from Irene and her other children, Susan and Lou; eventually, Ma is taken away from everyone. Hardened and alone, she separates from the family. Until Irene forces them all together again.
Deanna Fei’s A Thread Of Sky is a lyrical look at life for one complicated family — one of my favorite types of stories. In Fei’s novel are issues as diverse as racism and family dynamics, infidelity and bulimia. Pregnancy. Marriage. Choosing a career over raising children. Being a woman in a man’s world.
Learning to let those who love you . . . love you.
Though I found it difficult to connect with Irene’s younger daughters, Kay and Sophie, I was consistently interested in Nora and her struggles as the head of the family household — even though she’d left years ago to become a homeowner and stock broker, a profession in which she has excelled. I know the pangs of familial guilt — the struggle to help everyone, even at your own detriment; the challenge of guiding, supporting and bolstering everyone up. After her father’s death, Nora must take care of everything for Irene, who can barely function. And I always wanted what was best for Nora.
A Thread Of Sky is an interesting novel — especially since we know that a trip to China is what will anchor the six women together. Irene, Ma, Kay, Sophie, Nora and Susan, their aunt, all arrive for a trek across their homeland. I loved seeing the country — its people, its traditions — through their eyes. Kay’s sense of not wanting to look like a “tourist” fascinated me, too, and I understood where she was coming from. Having worked hard to live independently in China, the last thing she wanted was to hit all the tourist traps with her family. It was embarrassing — and seemed to belittle her experience there.
But my heart couldn’t help but break for Irene, who worked tirelessly to make the trip fun for everyone. Buying cheesy souvenirs. Consulting Kay on the best place to see the Great Wall — apart from the peddlers, sweaty tourists and trinket-wielding vendors. For Irene, a woman seeking answers, this vacation felt like a last-chance effort to reconnect with the family she feels slipping away. I don’t know if she got what she wanted — but maybe she did. Maybe it just came in a different form.
There was too much emotional distance between the many characters and me to say I fell in love with this book, but Fei’s beautiful prose kept me turning the pages and hungry for more. My favorite passage reads,
“Her mother and sister, herself and her daughters — they had all set out, in a way, to be astronomers. Focused on chasing the unattainable, on charting the unknowable, and forgetting what made them who they were, what gave meaning to their lives in the end — the connections between them. It was time they all remembered.”
And isn’t that what we’re all seeking? A way back home — and to each other?
3.75 out of 5!