Recently Mingmei Yip contacted me and asked if i was willing to do a book review for her most recent novel Secret of a Thousand Beauties. I can never refuse a book, especially one about China, so I was happy to review it.
This is the plot is a bit complex so I’m just gonna steal the publishers description which is more concise then I could write it:
Set against the vibrant and intrigue-laden backdrop of 1930s China, Mingmei Yip’s enthralling novel explores one woman’s defiant pursuit of independence.
Spring Swallow was promised in marriage while still in her mother’s belly. When the groom dies before a wedding can take place, seventeen-year-old Spring Swallow is ordered to become a ghost bride to appease his spirit. Under her in-laws’ protection, she will be little more than a servant, unable to know real love or bear children. Refusing to accept her fate as a “bad-luck woman,” Spring Swallow flees on her wedding day.
In the city of Soochow, Spring Swallow joins a community of renowned embroiderers. The women work for Aunty Peony, whose exquisite stitching once earned her the Emperor’s love. But when Aunty Peony agrees to replicate a famous painting–a lucrative assignment that will take a year to complete–betrayal and jealousy emerges within the group. Spring Swallow becomes entangled in each woman’s story of heartbreak, even while she embarks on a dangerous affair with a young revolutionary. On a journey that leads from the remote hillsides around Soochow to cosmopolitan Peking, Spring Swallow draws on the secret techniques learned from Aunty Peony and her own indomitable strength, determined to forge a life that is truly her own.
I’m all for reading books about China, and I like that the fictional story is set in the historical context. I found all the stuff about embroidery and the historical time period fascinating. Also, women were really forced to “marry” dead husbands and they virtually became slaves to his family and I enjoyed reading about that.
What didn’t impress me was the dialogue or the plot. The dialogue seemed overly simplified and reminded me of my students writing; direct with no subtly and too formal for speech. The plot also moved along at a break-neck speed and was a bit too contrived to be believable. For instance on the night of her wedding she runs away to Suzhou (called soochow in the book based on the former english spelling of the name) and the first person she sees and talks to is nice and has a place for her to live. And in some of the “high stakes” part of the book I didn’t feel very much tension.
But the worst of it is in the beginning and the more you read it, the more you get into it. I almost put it down after the first bit, but I’m glad I didn’t. The book gets better and either the dialogue improves or you stop noticing it, because in the second half I didn’t think about it much and plowed right through eager to see what would happen next.
Also, I liked how the book portrays the struggles of women living at that time. From her infancy of being promised to a dead guy, through her marriage with a revolutionary, her bosses son and finally an ex-priest her struggle is representative of women in the past. That a woman couldn’t really live and take care of herself back then without a husband to protect her. (The publishers description says its about a woman’s “defiant pursuit of independence” but I think that’s a bit inaccurate. Her pursuit is to find a decent man to marry which isn’t my definition of freedom, but perhaps was for women in the 30’s.)
So this isn’t the best book about China I could recommend but it is a good one. If you are interested in ancient china, especially from a woman’s point-of-view I definitely recommend this book. (And I could see it as a great movie too.) So check it out!