Book review: ‘All The Flowers In Shanghai’ by Duncan Jepson

Seventeen-year-old Xiao Feng is more interested in walking through gardens with her grandfather than blushing around boys in 1930s Shanghai, but life changes suddenly with an unexpected death — and a new deal brokered with an influential Chinese family. Married off to Sang Xiong Fa, the selfish son of a wealthy family, Feng is instructed to breed an heir. Her thoughts, opinions and interests matter little in the face of the wishes of domineering First Wife, Xiong Fa’s severe mother.

Despondent that her own parents would force her into such an arrangement, Feng’s life is shaped by the decisions she makes early in her marriage — and the story, shared as a way of explaining the time in which she grew up and the reasoning behind her choices, eventually finds Feng deeply changed and far from home. As the Communist Revolution pushes across China, Feng must come to terms with the way life has unfolded.

Duncan Jepson’s All The Flowers In Shanghai is a coming-of-age saga concerning a young, sheltered woman — a second daughter — and the unexpected path she’s forced to take. I fell in love with Jepson’s descriptions of the lush gardens in which Feng learns about life from her grandfather, and his early presence in the book endeared me to the story. From the moment I started, I felt invested in Feng’s future and eager to learn what became of her.

The emphasis on tradition, “giving face” (paying respect) and the tightly-controlled, measured lives of women in 1930s Shanghai all served to demonstrate how Feng’s fate seemed beyond her control. She falls in love with a young, poor man just before she’s shipped off to the Sang family, and the memory of their brief time together — an innocent time, a “normal” time — never leaves her. It’s Bi, in fact — or the memory of him, anyway — that eventually leads her in a new direction. But not before so much befalls her.

Before we go any further, I’ll whip out my ignorance: I know very little about China’s Communist revolution, civil war and cultural practices. While other readers have devoured books like Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls, I’ve yet to pick up much literature set in Asia. Jepson’s All The Flowers In Shanghai served, for me, as a nice primer on a very unique time period.

Though many of Feng’s actions seem hard to understand , I feel Jepson did a good job of justifying his narrator’s actions in the context of the era. I was angry at her handling of certain situations, especially regarding the treatment of her own children, but I knew her feelings of betrayal guided these reactions. At a time in which wives were property and a necessary commodity, Feng is thrust into a life she never wanted. The book nicely captured the sense that much of what shapes us isn’t decided by us at all. Quite sobering.

Other readers have mentioned feeling emotionally distant from Feng, and I can understand where they’re coming from — but I actually felt bonded to her through all she’d been through, especially as I realized the drastic lengths to which she had to go to keep from feeling as though the Sangs, and her husband, “owned” her. Though Feng does eventually come to use sex as a weapon, I didn’t find the novel distasteful or graphic. The scenes in which Xiong Fa “visits” his new wife made me feel squeamish and sad for her, but I wasn’t horrified by Jepson’s descriptions. It’s all handled with care.

It might be worth noting that Jepson, a male author, has written a moving novel from the perspective of a broken young woman. Never pandering, Jepson’s accounts of Feng’s life as the woman chosen to give the Sang family an heir resonated deeply with me — and, as the Chinese Revolution spreads, I felt the full weight of its futility. Wealth, privilege and tradition mean nothing in the face of the changing world.

Though ultimately somber, All The Flowers In Shanghai was a story in which I felt invested from the beginning and was eager to finish. Fans of historical fiction, tales of motherhood and those who enjoy peeking at feminine roles throughout history might find something sad, touching and fascinating in Jepson’s debut.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0758246854 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘A Thread of Sky’ by Deanna Fei

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!

ISBN: 0545230500 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review