October 09, 2011
All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson
I had just read a book by Lisa See that was much in the same genre of this book so I was somewhat already in the time set and culture when I started reading All the Flowers in Shanghai. That being said, I didn't enjoy this book as much as the other. There were some larger flaws that just made the book not quite as magical to me.
Feng has always been the 2nd daughter, not thought of much or primped and prepared for the world beyond. But when her sister dies she is suddenly thrust into the role of marriage with her sister's fiance. He is a rather corpulent man with a controlling and abusive family, but they are rich and Feng's parents hope that this will increase their standing in the world. Feng is frightened at first and with the duties that are assigned to her, she grows to hate her role in life and sends her firstborn, a daughter, away in secret as she can't stand to think of her. She hopes for a son and turns into a different person than what she once was, slowly forgetting her walks in the garden with her grandfather, and the flowers they named there. As change comes upon China, Feng too must change again.
Feng was a decidedly unlikable character. Granted she was thrust into a role she wasn't prepared to handle, but she became too much of a harpy and too unlike her original innocent self. I felt that something should have been retained of what she once was as it was hard to read about a character with no hope. I did like her maid Yan and thought she was the best character of the book. She seemed to keep everything grounded and in reality with still a hint of niceness. The rest of the characters were mostly deplorable, although a few towards the end of the book were nice and their personalities developed. I enjoyed reading the scenes with Madam Zhang, a seamstress in Feng's life, as she seemed a strong woman.
The plot read more like a memoir than a work of fiction so I suppose that was the author's intent. But what really struck me was the way the book read. The words almost seemed to be directed at a preteen age in their simplicity, but the vivid sex scenes and gruesome descriptions of childbirth belied that tone. It just didn't flow well for me. The plot was probably close to the truth for what people in China experienced in those times, and as such, it was a very sad book with little hope in it. Not something to read if you're already feeling depressed.
It wasn't a bad book but it wasn't something I'd read again or seek out the author's other works for. I'll stick to some of the other writers in the genre, like Lisa See.
All the Flowers in Shanghai