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!