This book is set in the late 1930s in Shanghai, where life was lived by very strict rules and traditions, especially for girls. Feng is a young, very naive girl who has grown up in the shadow of her elder sister, who in the novel goes only by the name Sister. Sister has been trained from a young age to be all that is desirable in the eyes of the richer families in Shanghai. She knows how to dress, how to perform ancient traditions like the tea ceremonies, how to catch a rich and influential husband for one reason and one reason only - to raise her family up the social ladder.
Feng on the other hand has been left to grow up under the much more relaxed rules of her grandfather; spending time in the gardens, learning the names of flowers etc. It is not expected that she will marry but rather that she will look after her parents when the time comes.
One of the most important things for a socially ambitious family is to never lose face or cause offense to those who are better than them. Therefore, when Sister is unable to fill her obligation to marry, Feng is forced to do so instead despite the fact that she has had barely any training and that she is very, very naive.
She marries into the wealthy Sang family, where traditions are expected to be maintained diligently and her sole reason for existence is to provide an heir. Her husband is initially understanding of her shyness when it comes to intimate matters but things change once the pressure builds from his family.
I found the initial parts of the book to be quite interesting. The author spent a lot of time drawing a picture of what it was like to be a young Chinese woman in those time with no choices over their future and by looking at both Feng and Sister we get to see the two different sides of that. We get details of the lavish efforts that went into attracting the right kind of suitors for a socially ambitious family include the beautiful wedding dress that must be made. For Feng there is also a nice friendship with Bi, the son of the seamstress.
It is after the marriage, and when Feng moves into the Sang home that the narrative started to falter. Part of that reflects the restrictions that were placed on Feng. She was barely allowed out of the home and so we no longer get to see anything of Shanghai through her eyes. In addition, Feng quickly transitions from an innocent young girl to a very bitter woman, from a naive young girl to a woman who knows how to titillate and humiliate her husband, who as a character is very one dimensional throughout the novel. In fact, most of the characters outside of Feng seem somewhat limited. Perhaps this is as a result of the fact that we only get to see these people from her view point, but perhaps there was not enough page time given to them to develop.
It was also difficult to empathise with Feng when she makes a decision in the middle of the book (to say anymore would be spoiling). Yes, we knew why she had made the decision that she had made, but it was not one that I could have made, and her initial actions and reactions were quite hard to believe. It was a relief when the book progressed a bit further and it was at last clear through her thoughts that she was haunted by the decisions that she had made. There were some plot holes in relation to this, particularly in terms of when the husband finds out what she has done, but before she can find out his reaction she fled so as not to have to face the consequences of her actions.
I came to this book as a reader of historical fiction, so I was a bit disappointed to see that after the initial set up, the historical details seemed to fade into black, especially given that there were pretty significant events taking place at the time. For example, the Japanese invasion of China was glossed over in just a couple of sentences and the lead up to the Cultural Revolution was pretty brief. By the end of the novel though, I was glad to see that Jepson did spend some time talking about the Cultural Revolution and the effect that those events had on Feng's life even if the mechanism to get her to that point was a little clunky. Feng looks back on her former life and it is clear that she comes to the realisation of how bitter and terrible she was to the people around her, which is very lucky because otherwise she would have been a completed unlikable narrator.
I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received the book from them in order to do so. Check out the thoughts of participated on the tour as there are others who appreciated different aspects of the book.
Here is the synopsis of the book:
In 1930's Shanghai, following the path of duty takes precedence over personal desires for every young Chinese woman. For Feng, that means becoming the bride of a wealthy businessman in a marriage arranged by her parents. In the enclosed world of the Sang household - a place of public ceremony and private cruelty - she learns that fulfilling her duty means bearing a male heir. Ruthless and embittered by a life that has been forced on her, Feng plots a terrible revenge. But as the years pass, she must come to a reckoning with the sacrifices and the terrible choices she has made to assure her place in family and society, before the entire country is engulfed in the fast-flowing tide of revolution.